COVID-19 advice for staff in colleges

UNISON is working to ensure that staff are paid properly and treated fairly, and that colleges reopen when it is safe to do so.

We know that many staff will be worried and anxious during this time, and UNISON is doing everything it can to uphold your rights at work, guarantee your financial position and safeguard your health.

UNISON has produced some FAQs setting out the latest advice for college staff working in England and Wales.

For general information about your rights at work during this health emergency please visit our dedicated web page.

My rights at work 

If you have any concerns or other questions, please contact your local UNISON branch.

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Colleges in England

UNISON advice applies to all support staff working in further education and sixth form colleges.

The planning guide has been designed in conjunction with all unions in the sector to help ensure that colleges meet their duties to assess risks and take steps to remove or control them. This guide was written for colleges to use when opening to a wider cohort in September in consultation with unions, staff and learners.

Planning guide for colleges

On the 22 February it was announced that colleges will reopen to all 16-19 learners and 16-25 learners with SEND on the 8 March 2021. This means that all colleges must now revisit their risk assessments to include new measures, including:

  • a requirement that those who can wear face coverings should do so, both inside classrooms/workshops and in corridors
  • taking part in twice weekly covid testing (lateral flow tests) to check for those who are carrying the virus but not displaying symptoms. Please note, these tests are voluntary but we encourage all to take part
  • a need to reduce the risk of airborne transmission through adequate ventilation of classrooms and workshops

Staff at higher risk

Any-one who is extremely clinically vulnerable must shield and it is the responsibility of the college to provide appropriate work that can be completed from home.

If you are clinically vulnerable then if you are able to work from home, then you should do so, however it is recognised that this will not be possible in all cases. If work cannot be provided for you to do at home then your employer should carry out an individual risk assessment for any member of staff who requests one.

Along with some of the other education unions we have produced an advice guide for vulnerable staff and a model letter for you to send to your employer.

If, after reading this advice you have concerns that your college do not address to your satisfaction then get in touch with your local UNISON branch.

Advice for vulnerable staff

Special educational needs (SEN) colleges

UNISON believes that the safety of staff and pupils working in special education colleges is paramount.The advice from the Department for Education states that most, if not all, learners attending special colleges are classed as vulnerable and should therefore be receiving a face-to-face education, if appropriate. UNISON does not believe that this is either possible or appropriate for a special college to be able to remain open to all learners whilst ensuring the health and safety of pupils, carers and staff.

The DfE has now stated that the national restrictions mean that all learners who can stay at home should stay at home.

Download UNISON guidance for special schools/colleges and alternative provision

If you have any concerns about your educational setting or need support please contact your branch for advice.

The previously agreed ‘five tests’ for reopening colleges, agreed by the joint unions, still stands:

The five tests

Test 1: Much lower numbers of COVID-19 cases

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive, open and transparent arrangements in place for testing, contact tracing and isolating those with COVID-19 symptoms.

Test 2: A national plan for social distancing

The Government must have a national plan in place which includes parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and safe levels of social mixing in all further education settings. To help ensure physical distancing during travel and at colleges, all staff and students who can work and study from home must continue to do so.

Test 3: Comprehensive testing

Comprehensive access to regular testing for students and staff, with isolation for all suspected cases, to ensure colleges don’t become hotspots for COVID-19. In addition to routine testing, protocols to be in place to ensure testing across whole college sites and other non-college work-based learning sites whenever a confirmed case of COVID-19 occurs.

Test 4: A whole college strategy for health and safety

Risk assessments and safe ways of working for all tasks and spaces within a college should be established with relevant staff and unions in advance. This should include regular deep cleaning and stringent hygiene measures. Where PPE is identified as required by risk assessments, supplies of these are secured before re-opening of affected areas. Strategy to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders.

Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable

Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of all staff, students and members of their households who are vulnerable to COVID-19.


Read more about our joint statement


Colleges in Wales

The joint trade unions for further education in Wales have produced guidance for staff who are required to return to help prepare the college site for social distancing and safe working. It includes a checklist of some of the questions that you may wish to ask your employer to answer before you agree to return to work. This guidance is also available in Welsh.

In consultation with the trade unions, the FE sector has published an ‘operational protocol’ to support the return of staff to
further education colleges in Wales. Members may be interested to read this too.

The Welsh government has published guidance on reopening FE institutions in the Autumn term, coupled with extra funding to support learners in FE.

Colleges in Northern Ireland

The NI Executive has stated the following:

From 26 December colleges must deliver distance learning to the maximum extent possible. Only essential face-to-face learning should take place when it is a necessary and unavoidable part of the course. Learners and staff will be permitted on-site to undertake assessments and examinations. You must continue to adhere to all relevant government issued industry and workplace restrictions and guidance for training in occupational settings.

External sources of information

The Department for Education (England) has produced guidance for colleges:

The Association of Colleges (in England) has produced guidance for its members:

Colleges Wales issued the following statement for its members:

Advice for staff in Scotland is available at this link and in the resources section below.

Please note the FAQs below are currently being revised.



  • Furlough

    Due to the complexity of college funding, FE colleges are allowed to use to Job Retention Scheme to furlough some staff.

    Please see UNISON’s full page of FAQs on furlough, flexible furlough and the Job Retention Scheme.

  • Special schools/colleges and alternative provision

    Are all pupils and learners with an Education, Health and Care plan vulnerable?

    The DfE latest advice states that all children and young people with an EHC Plan are vulnerable. This is different to the advice that the DfE issued in previous lockdowns. Whilst we know that UNISON members working in special education always go above and beyond for the young people in their care we believe that the blanket definition of vulnerable issued by the DfE is very unhelpful and does not reflect the needs of pupils and learners.

    Should all pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan come into school?

    No. All children should be educated in the setting that is most appropriate to their needs. For many children they would be better served by receiving a remote education. For example, a child/young person with an EHC Plan may present with underlying health problems that would put them at risk should they be exposed to Covid-19 unnecessarily. Some children and young people feel extremely anxious about coming into school/college in the current climate and should not be required to do so. On the other hand for some children the routine of coming to school may be necessary to meet their needs or they may need access to therapies and resources that are only available at school.

    UNISON believe that head teachers and school staff should work closely with parents to establish what is best for the child/young person given the numbers of staff and resources available in the school setting.

    Can special schools and colleges offer places to all pupils/learners?

    In the current climate it is extremely unlikely that any special school/college can operate as usual. Staffing is likely to be reduced due to some needing to shield or isolate, or who might be ill themselves. This is why settings need to plan for their most vulnerable pupils/learners now rather than slavishly follow DfE guidance in the hope that everything can carry on as normal. DfE guidance does allow for settings to reduce capacity when staffing is a problem. UNISON believes this should be planned for in advance rather than reacted to later.

    I work in a special school and know that many of the pupils will not want a swab for a covid test. What should I do?

    Firstly it is important to remember that participating in covid testing is voluntary and must not be carried out if the parent has not given their consent. If the pupil is to take part is testing but there are barriers to this it is important that the school works with the parent and the child to work out a plan of how that individual child might be able to take part. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

    The pupils in my school will not wear face coverings all day and I worry about the virus spreading because of this.

    There will be pupils in specialist settings who will be exempt from wearing a face covering due to their needs. This does not mean that you should be at risk. The risk assessment should identify suitable PPE and other mitigations in these circumstances.

    I work in a school where children have communication needs and have been told not to wear a face covering.

    The are different types of face covering that will allow you to feel protected whilst allowing pupils who need to lip read or see facial expression to see you. We recommend specialised clear face coverings rather than visors, since visors do not provide adequate protection from airborne transmission of the virus.

    I do not feel safe at my workplace due to the amount of children and young people in attendance.

    Please contact your branch and let them know. They will be able to advise you of your rights at work under Health and Safety legislation.

  • Covid testing

    What should my college be doing on test and trace? 

    UNISON remains very concerned that the government’s outsourced testing and tracing system is not currently fit for purpose. Maximum efforts need to be made to ensure that there is a fully integrated system nationally and locally. UNISON is working with others to apply maximum pressure on the government to change the system. Fast turnaround testing is vital and it is important that staff, learners and unions are alerted to any positive tests as early as possible to look out for others who might show symptoms.

    When college sites reopen on the 8 March, learners and staff will be offered two LFTs (lateral flow tests) per week. The current intention is that the first three tests take place on the college premises before moving to a system where testing takes place at home. The Department for Education is responsible for ensuring that colleges have enough tests for this. Results of these tests are available within 30 minutes and staff and learners must be able to stay in a suitable, socially distanced space whilst waiting for these results. Any-one who tests positive needs to then be taken to a designated space where they can be safely isolated until they can safely travel home and follow government isolation guidelines.

    The DfE guidance has specific advice on test and trace – see ‘Section 1: Public health advice to minimise coronavirus (COVID-19) risks’ – point 7.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your UNISON rep or local branch for advice and assistance.

    I’ve heard that lateral flow tests sent to colleges have not been approved for use as why do we have to have them?

    Lateral flow tests, particularly when self-administered have been shown to be considerably less reliable than would be desirable.BMJ evidence

    UNISON’s position is that lateral flow tests are better than nothing and should be used in conjunction with other safety measures, such as isolating, not instead of.

    Following newspaper reports than lateral flow tests have not been approved for use, UNISON has sought clarity with the Department for Health and Social Care who have stated that lateral flow tests have been approved for use in educational establishments to help detect asymptomatic cases but have not been approved for daily use as an alternative to isolation. The government has now dropped previous plans for using tests as an alternative to isolation.

    Do I have to have a test?

    Taking a test is voluntary, however UNISON urge members to engage with the testing programme as part of national efforts to control the spread of the virus.

  • PPE

    Should my college be providing PPE?

    The DfE guidance says most staff in education settings don’t need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) beyond what is required for their normal work and that it is only needed in a small number of cases. In their view such cases only include: where a pupil becomes ill with coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms while at college, and if 2 metres cannot be maintained; or where a pupil already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE; or when performing aerosol generating procedures. Their advice recommends that colleges refer to safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care for more information about infection and PPE.

    UNISON strongly disagrees with this guidance. Risk assessments should decide whether PPE is necessary, particularly as different roles have different levels of risk. We do not think that the DfE should make this blanket statement. Colleges must ensure that they always have adequate supplies of PPE available. PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and face masks must be made available following a risk assessment and where it is not possible to implement government guidance on social distancing.

  • Face coverings

    Should I wear a face covering at work?

    The government’s advice on face coverings in colleges is constantly changing. The latest guidance is that face coverings should be worn by adults and students when moving around the premises, in corridors and communal areas and in classrooms or workshops where social distancing cannot easily be maintained, except where exemptions apply.

    Face coverings do not need to be worn by students when outdoors on the premises or where taking part in strenuous activities, e.g. sports.

    It is important that face coverings are used in addition to other protective measures and that wearing them does not lead to the relaxation of social distancing and regular hand washing. These practices should be adhered to at all times.

    Face coverings may provide extra protection and some colleges are now providing face coverings such as clear visors for employees, especially where 2-metre social distancing cannot be applied. If a risk assessment identifies that face ‘masks’ are needed as PPE the employer must source and provide these and put in place training on its correct use.

    The PPE required will depend on the nature of your role and should be issued where the risks you are exposed to make it necessary. Any staff who require it must be trained in its use. Please see UNISON’s PPE guide for more details.

  • Risk assessments

    What is a risk assessment?

    Employers must protect people from harm in the workplace. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect staff, pupils and others from coronavirus (COVID-19) within colleges. A risk assessment is the combined effort of identifying and analysing potential hazards and dangers that may negatively impact individuals.

    College employers have a legal duty to make sure that a risk assessment has been undertaken to identify the measures needed to reduce the risks from coronavirus (COVID-19) so far as is reasonably practicable and make the college COVID-secure.  All risk assessments should be periodically updated or as and when local and or individual circumstances change. Your college has a legal requirement to update its risk assessment to include additional/revised control measures needed for a full return to college in September and to consult with trade unions.

    UNISON believes that college should undertake an individual risk assessment for any staff member who requests one, for example if they or someone they live with is in a vulnerable group (please see separate FAQ on vulnerable and higher risk groups). Department for Education guidance does not mention colleges carrying out individual risk assessments for vulnerable college staff – despite the fact that government advice for businesses reopening advises them to consider vulnerable groups. UNISON believes the DfE guidance for colleges on carrying out risk assessments is inadequate.

    The joint unions and employers in England have produced a helpful planning guide for colleges to check that safe procedures are being followed. You can also contact your local UNISON health and safety rep or local branch for further information and support.

    What is happening with risk assessments?

    Risk assessments must have been completed prior to the 8 March reopening and by law the college must consult with union reps on the risk assessment. If you wish to see any aspect of the risk assessment contact your local UNISON rep who will have been involved with this.

    After the 8 March the risk assessment must be treated as a live document and reviewed at regular intervals.

  • Mental health

    Where can I get emotional support?

    The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, and you might need support with anxiety about being in the workplace, stress from juggling caring responsibilities or coping with bereavement or isolation. If your mental health has been affected, or if you just want to talk to someone, there are lots of options.

    UNISON’s own charity for members, There for You, can help you to find relevant sources of emotional support. For more information contact them on 020 7121 5620, email or contact your branch welfare officer. Note you may also be able to access financial support from the charity if you need it.

    You can also contact Education Support, which offers a free 24/7 helpline with fully trained counsellors on hand to listen.

    UNISON continues to urge employers to take real action to support staff with their mental health.

  • Pay

    If I have to self-isolate or my college is closed as a result of a local lockdown will I still be paid?

    UNISON believe that all staff should be paid in full for any period of isolation, that this should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or used as part of any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    Any other course of action risks undermining the national efforts to contain the virus.

    If you have issues with your employer, please urgently raise them with your rep or local branch for advice and assistance.

    I work for a private contractor in the college. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the college is closed due to a local lockdown?

    Many contractors, e.g. cleaning are still being fully paid by the college. Some contractors, e.g. catering are being partially paid and can therefore use the ‘furlough scheme’ to cover 80% of staff wages where there is no work for them to do. UNISON knows that many staff working for contractors in colleges are low paid and cannot afford to be paid less. This is why we call on all contractors to pay their staff their full wages during periods of lockdown.

    In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON is therefore calling on college employers to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Colleges, Safer Colleges campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your UNISON rep or local branch for advice and assistance. 

  • Vulnerable and higher risk groups

    What should my employer be doing to protect me?

    The joint unions, including UNISON, continue to believe that staff should only attend the workplace when it is sufficiently safe for them as individuals to do so.

    Please read the detailed vulnerable members advice we have produced. This sets out our specific advice for each group so it is important that you read this carefully. There is also a model letter for you to send to your employer should you need it.

    How does the wider reopening affect clinically vulnerable staff?

    The government have advised clinically extremely vulnerable people to continue to shield. If you are clinically extremely vulnerable you must work from home or stay at home on full pay where you cannot work from home.

    UNISON believes that working from home will also be the safest option for other employees with underlying vulnerabilities or who live with people who are clinically extremely vulnerable.

    Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

  • Bubbles and social distancing

    How can college learners be kept in bubbles?

    The government guidance for further education colleges on ‘bubbles’ and social distancing is vague and leaves decisions for managers in individual colleges to decide what is most appropriate for their own college. The guidance states that the “overarching principle to apply is reducing the number of contacts between learners and staff”.

    The planning guide for colleges advises that systems should be devised that keeps learners 2 metres apart wherever possible and at least 1 metre where extra measures are put in place.

  • Health and safety

    Our college doesn’t have adequate supplies of hand soap and sanitiser. How can we work safely?

    It is incredibly important that learners and staff have access to soap and warm water or sanitiser to wash your hands as this is a key recommendation to protect ourselves from the virus. The college must provide adequate supplies of soap/ sanitiser for all staff and learners. Ask the employer to increase the supply as a matter of urgency. Stocks of soap should be checked and replenished before the start of every day and hand sanitiser should be made available in classrooms and at reception.

    Who should be cleaning the college given the heightened levels of risk and what provisions should be made for their safety?

    Those employed to clean the college should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions.

    See our detailed advice.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the college
    5. Notify all staff and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice.

    Also see the link to the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

  • Operational issues

    I have been asked to provide cover for other roles, but this work will be very different to my usual roles at college. Where does this leave me?

    We know that support staff are absolutely committed to doing their part and UNISON is totally committed to doing all we can to support you, protect your finances and safeguard your health and wellbeing. There may be a need for staff to help with alternative roles, but this should be on a voluntary basis first and with proper support from your employer. If you have any concerns about any changes, please speak to your local branch.

    My college is in the middle of a restructure and/or redundancy consultation. Should this be put on hold?

    We are in a middle of a global health emergency and college support staff are in the front line with others in the battle to help beat this virus and help save lives. Absolutely nothing should detract from this effort and UNISON is therefore calling for all redundancies, restructures, TUPE transfers and non-urgent disciplinaries to be put on hold. The battle to save lives must come first.

    The Further Education Commissioner, who is responsible for overseeing college finances in England has stated that staff welfare is of paramount importance and colleges should not be thinking about restructures at the current time.

  • Catering

    I am worried that I am going to be made redundant or have my hours cut.

    On-site catering services have been reduced since the pandemic began, however colleges cannot afford to lose valuable skilled members of staff who will be needed once the pandemic is over.

    There are many government-backed schemes available to catering contractors to help them through this time and reduce the effect on staffing. Unison will negotiate with providers who are struggling on how they can get the best from these schemes and save jobs.

    You may be asked to be furloughed and in many cases we are working with catering contractors to use the furlough scheme on a rota basis between staff. Many catering roles cannot be fulfilled from home and there may be some staff may be asked if they wish to be redeployed into alternative roles – you should weigh up the pros and cons of this in light of your own circumstances.

    If you receive a notification from your employer that says you hours will be cut or you are in danger of losing your job, contact your local branch straight away for advice.

    If colleges are shut why am I being asked to attend work?

    Colleges will not completely close since they are being asked to stay open for some exams and for vulnerable young people, including those with special educational needs and those who cannot access remote education at home. Changes in government guidance means that presently there are more learners on site than in previous lockdowns. Additionally all 16-18 year olds who are entitled to Free School Meals will need to receive their entitlement. While some colleges will choose to use the voucher system, you may be asked to provide packed lunches to be delivered or collected for this group of young people.

    I have been told to buy my own PPE.

    If PPE is required for you to be able to do your job safely, then your employer is required, by law, to provide it for you.

    There are some grey areas however over what is seen as PPE and what isn’t, for example:

    Uniforms are not generally seen as PPE but a protective apron to prevent the spread of infection would be.

    One area where there is currently confusion is “face-coverings” vs “face masks”. A face mask (which is PPE) is provided on the basis of risk assessment as necessary to minimise the risk of infection. This must be provided by the employer ensuring it meets the relevant certification requirements, is cleaned and maintained, and staff are trained in its use. A face covering is not considered PPE, as although it may help in reducing the rate of transmission, it does not provide the level of protection necessary to minimise the risk of infection.

  • Cleaning

    What is the government’s guidance on college cleaning?

    The government’s advice on cleaning in a non-health care setting covers educational settings. There is additional advice published by the Department for Education on cleaning the environment. UNISON at a national level is continuously monitoring the situation.

    Who should be cleaning the college given the heightened levels of risk and what provisions should be made for their safety?

    Cleaners employed to clean the college should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions. See our detailed advice.

    What about ‘deep cleaning’?

    Although there is no clear definition of a deep clean it is accepted that a deep clean is more than a standard or regular clean. Only cleaning staff should be asked to carry out a deep clean of a college or particular area within the college. If you are instructed to carry out deep cleaning duties and you are not employed as a cleaner you should make clear to your manager that this is not your role. If your manager continues to insist then contact your local UNISON branch and seek support.

    For cleaning staff, a risk assessment and training should be conducted and appropriate personal protective (PPE) equipment provided by the employer before any deep cleaning is carried out. Instructions should also be given on the use of any specialist equipment such as steamers for sanitising equipment, fixtures and fittings within the college.

    Cleaning chemicals should conform to the Chemical Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and be provided by the employer. Staff should not be asked to provide their own cleaning materials, solutions or equipment at any time.

    In conjunction with the above, colleges should:

    1. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    2. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    3. Notify all staff of what is happening and keep them updated on any developments.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the college
    5. Notify all staff and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice. Also see the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

    We are campaigning for better protections for cleaners at this vital time in our Clean Colleges, Safer Colleges campaign.