COVID-19 advice for school & early years staff

Devolution means that guidance may be different across the four UK countries and updates may be announced at different times.

  • UK wide and England-specific updates will be placed on this page.
  • UNISON Cymru/Wales will post updates on its website and Facebook page.
  • UNISON Scotland will post updates on its website and Facebook page.
  • UNISON Northern Ireland will post updates on its website.


The government has changed its guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people from 1st April.

Please see our latest advice below for clinically extremely vulnerable, medically vulnerable and other higher-risk members in schools.


Schools reopen – 8 March

Schools in England reopened to all pupils from 8 March. Please see UNISON’s Cymru/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland websites above for more information on restrictions in these countries.

The government has updated its guidance for schools during this period. UNISON believes that this advice does not go far enough to improve school safety.

Our checklist below describes the measures you can ask your employer to implement to keep schools safe in this stage of the pandemic.

Read our updated joint union risk assessment checklist 

I’m clinically extremely vulnerable, do I need to go back to work on 1st April?

The government’s shielding advice to the clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) group ends from 1 April. However, the government advises that CEV people:

  • should work at home where possible.
  • continue to keep the number of social interactions low and try to reduce the amount of time spent in settings where they are unable to maintain social distancing.
  • No vaccine is 100% effective and therefore even with both doses, there is still no absolute guarantee that a CEV person will not become ill from COVID-19.

Our advice is that CEV education staff should continue to work at home at this time, with no change to current arrangements.

Please see our updated guidance with template letter to employers for more advice.

Advice for medically vulnerable and high-risk staff  

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 vulnerable.

There are a number of staff who may be at higher risk from the virus than the general population because of certain characteristics, including race, gender, age and disability. Schools should conduct individual risk assessments for employees in known higher-risk groups, with consideration of working from home as a protective measure. UNISON has published specific guides for Black and disabled members on their rights during the pandemic.

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

When will school and early years staff get the vaccine?

UNISON believes all staff working in schools should be a priority group for vaccination. UNISON wrote to the Secretary of State in early January calling for all education staff to be prioritised, not just teachers. Gavin Williamson accepted this and publicly said that he believes all school staff should get it as a priority.

The government decides who will be vaccinated, based heavily on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). UNISON has approached the JCVI making our case and we will continue to put pressure on the government to vaccinate education staff urgently.

UNISON is campaigning for priority vaccinations for education staff – will your MP back you and lobby the government to put you on the priority list?

Email your MP now

The health and safety responsibilities owed by school and college employers

School staff have a right to a safe working environment and individuals shouldn‘t have to work where they reasonably believe that they (or others)  face serious and imminent danger.  The following link outlines main health and safety legislation, including your rights not to face serious and imminent danger at work (Section 44 ECRA 1996).  Following legal advice we will not be issuing national blanket advice to submit S44 letters as we did in January as the situation is different.  However UNISON branches can advise members how to use their rights if you  feel you are being put at serious or imminent risk.

Download further information on Schools and colleges’ health and  safety responsibilities

If you have any concerns about your working environment or what you are being asked to do, please contact your branch for further advice.


Special schools

UNISON believes that the safety of staff and pupils working in special schools is paramount.

The advice from the Department for Education states that most, if not all, pupils attending special schools/colleges and alternative provision are classed as vulnerable and should therefore be receiving a face-to-face education. UNISON does not believe is it possible to do this safely and we have therefore set out our own guidance on how this can be done safely.

UNISON guidance for special schools/colleges and alternative provision

Please also see the FAQs in the section below called ‘Special schools/colleges and alternative provision’.

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


Early years

Early years settings, including nurseries, have remained open during the latest lockdown, but as schools reopen, it is likely that the number of children in attendance will increase.

What is UNISON calling for?

UNISON believes that all early years settings will need to review their risk assessments as a result of the increased pupil numbers. Settings will need to carefully manage the re-introduction of children and the impact that this has on established ‘bubbles’.

We believe that ‘bubbles’ should be limited to 16 children. It is important that staff are not asked to mix between ‘bubbles’ as there remains a high risk of infection given the increased transmissibility of new variants of Covid-19.

We are calling on the government to include early years staff as a priority group for both testing and vaccination along with all other education staff.

Early years staff must have the same rights and protections as other education staff. We know that staff are unable to apply social distancing within early years settings, which already places them at increased risk.

The government also needs to review the long-term funding support to early years settings to ensure that we have a sustainable sector.

Can I refuse to attend work if I believe that my workplace is unsafe?

UNISON remains clear that members who work in early years have a right to a safe working environment. We will continue to place pressure on the Government and employers to ensure this. In addition, individuals shouldn’t have to work where they reasonably believe that they (or others) face serious and imminent danger.

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

Can early years staff still qualify for furlough?

If staff meet the qualifying criteria then they can still be placed on furlough. This applies if the setting either closes, or remains open but at reduced capacity.

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


What if I have a question?

A full list of FAQs for school support staff and early years staff in England is provided below. (See links at the top of the page for advice in Scotland, Cymru/Wales and Northern Ireland.).

If you are concerned about safety issues in your school or think that agreements are not being followed, please get in touch with your local UNISON branch.

Contact my branch

For more information about your rights at work please visit our dedicated web page


  • Bubbles and social distancing

    What about the size of groups and bubbles?

    DfE guidance is that bubbles should be as small as possible and that further bubbles should not mix and social distancing between individuals should be maximised within bubbles.  However, it does not specify a maximum bubble size and still says staff can work across bubbles where necessary.

    UNISON is clear that smaller bubbles that are fully contained are best to restrict possible viral transmission. Government guidance on bubble sizes does not go far enough to protect pupils, staff and their families. We are therefore urging school leaders and headteachers to split classes into smaller groups to keep bubble sizes as small as possible. We have been calling on the government to allow schools to use a rota system or blended learning to facilitate smaller bubbles and ensure that staff can always stay in their own bubble.

    What is UNISON’s advice on social distancing?

    The DfE guidance states staff should maintain 2m distancing  from each other and from pupils where possible,  But it goes on to state that the DfE recognises that this not always possible and that you should avoid close face to face contact and minimise time spent within 1 metre of anyone. The guidance states classrooms should be rearranged to maximise social distancing and that there should be no assemblies etc. Further, it states when staff or children cannot maintain distancing, particularly with younger children in primary schools, the risk can be reduced by keeping pupils in smaller groups.

    This does not in UNISON’s view go far enough – a view shared by the governments own scientific advisory body (Sage) who on 23 December strong highlighted the dangers to the government of social distancing less than 2m.  Therefore, UNISON is calling on schools to  split classes into smaller groups to ensure social distance measures can be maintained. We have been calling on the government to allow schools to use a rota system or blended learning to facilitate smaller bubbles and ensure that staff can always stay in their own bubble.

    We are also concerned at the potential increased risk to school staff whose roles mean social distancing will be extremely difficult, (if not impossible) for example those supporting pupils with medical needs or carrying out one-to-ones or group work. That is why we are calling on schools to carry out role-based risk assessments and provide PPE – please see the FAQ on PPE for more details.

    UNISON and the joint unions have produced a checklist which sets out what employers should demonstrate they have considered in establishing their arrangements for social distancing or minimising contacts and mixing.  Please ensure your school has a copy.

    Your school should review, update and consult you on its risk assessment in light of the new strain and any further changing circumstances. Please speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned about the safety measures in your school.

  • Catering

    Will we be expected to provide a full service from the 8 March?

    The number of children in primary schools is likely to be quite large on the 8th March. All plans made should anticipate this and risk assessments should show how kitchens will be able to cater for relatively large numbers. You can ask to see the risk assessment for your kitchen and your UNISON rep must have been consulted on this.

    If you work in a secondary school there are likely to be fewer pupils for at least the first week, due to the need for pupils in Years 7-13 to be tested twice-weekly and the time that it will take schools to undertake this.

    My colleague(s) have been advised to continue shielding and I cannot cope with the amount of work on my own.

    Clinically extremely vulnerable staff will still need to shield when schools return to full cohorts and this may create staffing shortages. Schools have been advised to contact their local authority if they cannot operate at safe staffing ratios and this should also apply in kitchens.

    If you are employed by a private contractor rather than the school, it is there responsibility to ensure adequate staffing ratios. If you are asked to do more work than you can safely do contact your local branch as soon as you can for support.

    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.

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

    UNISON believes that the school meals service is vital and we cannot lose valuable skilled members of staff who will be needed once the pandemic is over.

    There are many government-backed schemes available to companies who provide school meals 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.

    Your employer will still have access to the Job Retention Scheme (commonly known as the furlough scheme) and in many cases we are working with catering contractors to use the furlough scheme on a rota basis between staff to help protect jobs. 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 your hours will be cut or you are in danger of losing your job, contact your local branch straight away for advice.

  • Childcare

    I have childcare responsibilities which will make it difficult for me to arrive at work for the usual start time or to attend as normal. What are my rights?

    The DfE has not issued specific advice to schools about employees whose children are unable to return to school. UNISON continues to raise this with government.

    UNISON’s advice is that you should explain your situation to your employer, and we would expect your employer to be reasonable in accommodating your circumstances. This is in line with the NJC Green Book (guidance which covers the overwhelming majority of schools) which states that employers should be fully supportive of employees with childcare responsibilities and consider flexible working arrangements including working from home; adapting working patterns to care for children or dependants; or taking time off, whether this is special leave, annual leave or flexible working.

    In addition Boris Johnson said during Prime Minister’s Questions on 11 May that he expects employers to be reasonable and take account of employees’ childcare difficulties: “We will count on employers to be reasonable if people can’t go to work because they can’t get the childcare that they need…plainly they are impeded from going to work and they must be defended and protected on that basis”.

    Many UNISON members will be entitled to paid dependant leave due to agreements negotiated with their employer, so please seek a copy of any related policy. Talk to your UNISON branch if you are unsure what your rights are.

    In the worst-case scenario, there are legal rights to unpaid leave in some cases.  But we don’t believe this should be necessary and the employer should facilitate your request for flexible working to facilitate your childcare responsibilities.

    Good employers will recognise the benefits of retaining experienced and committed staff and should consider the childcare needs of all staff when planning for the winter term and beyond. If women are disadvantaged because their employer does not agree to reasonable flexible working arrangements to allow them to balance work and childcare, they may be able to claim indirect sex discrimination if reasonable attempts to resolve the matter individually or collectively do not resolve the issue. Again, you should seek advice from your local UNISON rep or branch first.


  • Cleaning

    What is the government’s guidance on school 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, which includes toys and equipment. UNISON at a national level is continuously monitoring the situation.

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

    Schools should recognise that cleaning is a skilled role and should not expect staff who are not employed as cleaners to undertake cleaning roles apart from any spraying and general wiping down intended to help keep everyone as safe as possible.

    Cleaners employed to clean the school 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.

    Schools should ensure regular cleaning throughout the school day and support cleaning staff including via additional paid hours and hiring additional cleaning staff where necessary.

    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 school or particular area within the school. 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 school.

    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, schools 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 school
    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.

  • 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 school is closed will I still be paid?

    The overwhelming majority of school members, including in academies, are covered by protections under the NJC ‘Green Book’ terms and conditions. The Green Book is negotiated by UNISON and the other support staff unions and contains the following clause:

    “An employee who is prevented from attending work because of contact with infectious disease shall be entitled to receive normal pay. The period of absence on this account shall not be reckoned against the employee’s entitlements under this scheme”

    This means that if you are employed under Green Book terms and conditions and are required to self-isolate you will continue to receive your normal pay. In addition, this period 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.

    Even if you are not covered by Green Book terms and conditions, your employer should observe this agreement during this emergency. 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 catering or cleaning contractor in the school. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the school is closed?

    Private outsourced catering, cleaning, IT companies etc. are still being paid by the school, so contracted staff should be fully paid. 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 believes that contractors should comply with the same procedures as the school in this emergency, otherwise this could undermine attempts to reduce the spread of virus. UNISON is therefore calling on school employers to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Schools, Safer Schools 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. 

    I am an agency staff member. Will I still be paid during periods of COVID-related absences/closures period?

    The school should, at the minimum, pay you to the end date of your assignment. In addition, many schools have already committed to continue full pay for agency staff, in line with directly employed staff, during the entire health emergency. Agency staff will, alongside other school-employed staff, play a vital role and UNISON is arguing that you should be kept on full pay during this period.

    I am looking after a clinically extremely vulnerable family member and cannot go to work.  Will I be paid for my absence?

    Your School should supply the necessary equipment to enable you to work from home as illness and caring duties permit and accept that some staff may have to be at home on full pay where such work cannot be found. Also, most employers have special leave policies to cover family/household emergencies etc which you may be able to use in this situation

    If you have any difficulties locally  please contact your local rep or UNISON branch.

  • PPE

    Should my school be providing PPE?

    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 school, and only then if 2 metres cannot be maintained; or where a pupil already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE. Their advice recommends that schools refer to safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care settings for more information about infection and PPE.

    UNISON believes that PPE should be made available for all personal care activities and where social distancing cannot be maintained, particularly in some special schools and nurseries. Schools must ensure that they always have adequate supplies of PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and medical grade face masks.

    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, such as cleaning staff and anyone administering first aid, medical care or personal support for special needs pupils. Any staff who require it must be trained in its use. Please see UNISON’s PPE guide for more details.

    Can I wear a face covering at work?

    The DfE has introduced new rules on face coverings when schools reopen to all pupils. In secondary schools, it is recommended that staff, pupils and students wear face coverings when moving around schools indoors. It is also now recommended that face coverings are worn in classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained. In primary schools, face coverings should be worn by staff and adult visitors where social distancing between adults is not possible. Children in primary schools do not have to wear face coverings.

    Although we welcome this change to the guidance, we believe that it does not go far enough to ensure effective use of face coverings as a safety measure to prevent airborne transmission.

    UNISON believes that all schools should require face coverings to be worn at all times, including in the classroom, by staff and students in secondary schools and by all staff in primary schools & SEND settings. With rising transmission rates in primary schools we have called for face coverings to be worn in the classroom in primary schools (with exemptions) as is the case in countries such as France.

    All schools should keep supplies of transparent face coverings

    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, etc. These practices should be adhered to at all times.

    In the meantime if you wish to wear a face covering and your employer is refusing to allow you to, please draw their attention to recent advice from the government’s scientific advisory group on this issue, who recommend that face coverings are used in education settings. If your employer still refuses, contact your local branch for support.

    I am a first aider and have been asked to look after children who display symptoms of COVID-19 at school until their parent/carer picks them up. What protection should my school provide with me to do this role?

    The DfE’s guidance has a section called ‘Prevention’ which specifically deals with this. This guidance says that PPE is only needed if the staff members looking after the child can’t keep two metres away.

    UNISON strongly believes that the DfE guidance is not sufficient and that full PPE must be available for anyone supervising someone with symptoms as staff cannot predict if they will need to get closer to pupils. Any member of staff volunteering for this duty must be given full training and an individual risk assessment – see the joint union guide for vulnerable employees.

    The DfE guidance also states that any members of staff who have helped someone with symptoms, or pupils who have been in close contact with them, do not need to self-isolate unless: they develop symptoms themselves; if the symptomatic person subsequently tests positive; or if they have been requested to do so by NHS Test and Trace.

    UNISON believes that all staff should be allowed to test as early as possible after suspected contamination, as this will limit potential cross infection. Please raise this with your school. If you have any concerns, contact your local rep or your branch.

  • 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 schools. A risk assessment is the combined effort of identifying and analysing potential hazards and dangers that may negatively impact individuals.

    School 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 school COVID-secure.  All risk assessments should be periodically updated or as and when local and or individual circumstances change. Your school has a legal requirement to update its risk assessment to include additional/revised control measures needed for the school to remain open safely and to consult with trade unions.

    UNISON believes that schools 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 information above on vulnerable and higher risk groups). Department for Education guidance does not mention schools carrying out individual risk assessments for vulnerable school staff – despite the fact that government advice for businesses reopening advises them to consider vulnerable groups. UNISON believes the DfE guidance for schools on carrying out risk assessments is inadequate.

    The joint unions have produced a helpful checklist to help with carrying out risk assessments in a school setting, which you can send to your school to aid them in their planning. You can also contact your local UNISON health and safety rep or local branch for further information and support.

    I haven’t seen my school’s risk assessment. What should I do?

    Your employer has a legal obligation to carry out a risk assessment. If you have not been spoken to about your risk assessment or had a risk assessment prior to your school opening, you should speak to your head teacher and request that a risk assessment is done before you return to work. A collective group risk assessment will not be sufficient in identifying individual risk. Contact your local UNISON branch immediately if you are required to work without a risk assessment being carried out.

    What should I do if I think my health and safety is at risk?

    Raise the issue immediately with your line manager.  In addition contact your local rep and or UNISON branch

  • School transport  

    What is the government’s advice on school transport?

    The Department for Education (DfE) guidance on schools reopening makes a distinction between ‘dedicated school transport; and wider public transport:

    • by dedicated school transport, they mean services that are used only to carry pupils to school. This includes statutory home to school transport, but may also include some existing or new commercial travel routes, where they carry school pupils only
    • by public transport services, they mean routes which are also used by the general public

    What’s the guidance on dedicated school transport, including statutory provision?

    The advice for passengers on public transport to adopt a social distance of two metres from people outside their household or support bubble (or a ‘one metre plus’s approach where this is not possible) need not apply from the autumn term on dedicated transport.  However, on advice from PHE, the DfE have updated their guidance for schools to state that all children aged 11 and over should wear face coverings on dedicated transport.

    UNISON welcomes this change as wearing face coverings will protect drivers and other transport users. However, we believe that schools should also consider extending this policy to younger pupils. Supplies of coverings should be available for pupils along with procedures for disposal and storage of the coverings. We expect that it will be necessary to increase school transport in many areas. Staggered start times and transport schedules could cause problems for parents with children of different ages at the same or other schools.

    What should schools consider when planning school transport services?

    DfE guidance states that schools must consider the following when planning school transport services from September:

    • how pupils are grouped together on transport, where possible this should reflect the bubbles that are adopted within school
    • use of hand sanitiser upon boarding and/or disembarking is to be available
    • additional cleaning of vehicles
    • organised queuing and boarding where possible
    • distancing within vehicles wherever possible
    • through ventilation, fresh air (from outside the vehicle) is maximised, particularly through opening windows and ceiling vents
    • that children and young people aged 11 and over use face coverings when travelling on dedicated transport

    The above applies to coaches and minibuses picking up the same pupils each day, as well as services which are used by different pupils on different days, including pupils with SEND. Sufficient transport provision must be made available to avoid any overcrowding and allow safer travelling for staff and pupils.

    UNISON and other schools staff unions believe that schools should also:

    • Review their transport provider’s risk assessment
    • Make arrangements for supervision of social distancing and measures on face coverings and seating on school transport
    • Make arrangements for additional cleaning of vehicles
    • Put protocols in place for drivers/escorts to report to staff if any child is unwell on a journey to school, including isolating other student son the transport, the driver and escort.
  • 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?

    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. The government advice for extremely vulnerable pupils who are currently shielding should return to on-sire education on 1 April.

    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 unlikely that all special schools/colleges can operate as usual. Positive cases will require staff and pupils to self-isolate. DfE guidance does allow for settings to reduce capacity when staffing is a problem.

    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.

  • Teaching assistants, PPA time and cover supervision

    Should teaching assistants/learning support assistants be leading classes?

    Throughout the COVID-19 crisis school staff have gone above and beyond to keep schools running and support children and young people. During this time many staff have stretched the boundaries of their job roles to help schools out while vulnerable colleagues were forced to stay away from work or while other colleagues were re-assigned to other areas.

    UNISON has concerns that in schools with staff shortages or where school layout or social distancing means that there is a need for additional classes or bubbles, teaching assistants will be asked to lead full classes and cover full teaching duties. This would not be fair on staff or pupils.

    The DfE’s guidance for schools has a specific section on school staff:

    “You should discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with members of staff, ensuring staff members have the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work, and all appropriate checks are made if they are engaging in regulated activity… Staff who are not teachers may be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher. This is covered under the:

    • Education (Specified Work) (England) Regulations 2012 for maintained schools and non-maintained special schools
    • the freedoms provided under the funding agreement for academies”

    A key sentence in the DfE guidance is: ‘…discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with members of staff.’ Schools should not impose new roles or duties on staff. We  expect that changes which impact on others should be discussed with all those affected, and that the local UNISON reps/contact should be involved. If there are no school-based reps then schools should contact the local UNISON branch. Members who are unhappy with proposals or are aware that their school has not talked to the union should contact their branch.

    Our clear position is that only suitably experienced teaching assistants should be asked to lead classes and then only in situations known about in advance, for example where a teacher is working from home due to being in a vulnerable group, and where another teacher is unavailable. Suitably experienced teaching assistants should only be those whose job description already includes this occasional responsibility, usually Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs, working at levels 4 and 5 according to the NJC model job profiles), and who are paid at the appropriate grade.

    Where HLTAs are deployed to lead classes, they should be provided with enough time, within their contracted hours, in which to plan and prepare, including opportunities to liaise with class teachers. They too should be supported by a teaching assistant. UNISON is clear that HLTAs should not be expected to lead classes on an indefinite basis, although we are also aware of the importance of protecting the integrity of any classes/bubbles as much as possible in current circumstances. Any arrangement for a HLTA to lead a class should be reviewed and agreed with the staff member on at least a fortnightly basis.

    UNISON is working with the Institute of Education, University of London, to do further work on the role of teaching assistants in schools.

    What about cover for teacher PPA time?

    Under normal circumstances, schools are required to put additional staff into their timetable to ensure that teaching continues during PPA time. During the spring/summer lockdown it was expected that small classes/bubbles would be kept intact to restrict movement. In order to maintain PPA time, many schools operated an adjusted timetable, for example closing classrooms to pupils for a day or afternoon a week, using that time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned.

    For March reopening, schools should operate an adjusted timetable to maintain smaller bubbles and facilitate PPA time. For example, closing classrooms to pupils for an afternoon a week and using this time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned. Educational provision is maintained for children during this time away from the classroom e.g. online and other home learning resources.

    UNISON will continue to put pressure on the DfE to allow schools the flexibility to introduce rotas or blended learning when needed to help facilitate PPA time.

    What about cover supervision?

    Cover supervision should only be for a teacher’s short-term absence from the classroom where the absence was not known about in advance (for example to cover short-term sickness). If small classes/bubbles continue, then ideally the allocated teaching assistant should provide this cover. To undertake cover supervision, TAs should have skills and knowledge of at least level 3 and be paid at the appropriate grade for this level (see the NJC model job profiles). In this situation there is no expectation that active teaching takes place. Rather, pupils should carry out a pre-prepared exercise under supervision. For more information see our factsheet on cover supervision.

    Schools should consider contingency arrangements for appropriate  cover supervision in their planning.

    What should members do if the use of teaching assistants in school is inappropriate?

    Please contact your local UNISON branch to discuss your concerns. As much as UNISON understands the challenging circumstances in which schools are operating, it is not fair to staff or pupils if staff are being deployed inappropriately.

  • Testing

    What does mass testing mean for my school?

    Mass testing of all schools and early years staff and secondary school pupils, using lateral flow tests, is a key part of the government’s plan for reopening schools. All staff will be offered testing kits so that they can test themselves twice a week at home. Secondary school pupils will be tested three times at school from 8 March every 3 to 5 days, before being offered testing kits for twice weekly tests at home.

    Previous plans for daily testing of identified close contacts of positive case have been paused until further evaluation of the tests can be completed.

    Schools should maintain a small testing site to be able to offer tests to pupils who need or want to take their tests at school.

    Whilst government is strongly encouraging schools to roll out the testing it is not mandatory for schools take part. Neither is it mandatory for pupils and staff to be tested.

    Read the government guidance on testing

    What is UNISON’s position on mass testing in schools?

    UNISON supports mass testing in schools as an ‘additional’ measure to try and identify asymptomatic cases. However, due to the reported number of false negatives generated by the lateral flow test (some reports suggest that self testing can miss over 50% of positive cases) we are clear it should not be used as an alternative to self-isolation. Self isolation of whole bubbles should still take place until more assurance about the accuracy of this test can be provided.

    Who should be undertaking the testing – do I have to do it?

    The test will be self-administered by pupils and staff however some roles will be needed to oversee, manage and clean the testing centres in schools. UNISON has been clear that this must be on a voluntary basis, with full training, clinical oversight, appropriate PPE and clear guarantees around any potential liabilities. Additional staff time must be fully paid at the appropriate rate.

    If you are having issues with testing in your school please contact your branch for advice and support.

    I work in a secondary special school what is the guidance on mass testing?

    Many pupils in special schools and colleges will not be able to self-administer the lateral flow tests. UNISON believes that testing falls under the statutory guidance Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions. This says:

    • Any member of school staff may be asked to provide support to pupils with medical conditions, including the administering of medicines, although they cannot be required to do so (our emphasis).
    • School staff should receive sufficient and suitable training and achieve the necessary level of competency before they take on responsibility to support children with medical conditions. Helping pupils to administer a lateral flow test is voluntary. If your contract of employment does not explicitly state you must administer medical procedures. If your contract states that you have responsibility for administering medicines then you must receive full training and only take on the task once you are fully competent to do so.

    If you are having issue with testing in your school please contact your branch for advice and support

    What are the guidelines on the NHS Test and Trace App?

    The Government introduced the NHS COVID-19 App in England and Wales to support the Test and Trace system. It uses Bluetooth technology to track contact between app users, alerting individuals when they have come into ‘close contact’ with someone who has subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. Close contact means within 2 metres of someone for 15 mins or more.

    The app is available to anyone aged 16 or over, therefore some students in years 11 and 12 can use the app alongside staff. The DfE has provided guidance on using the app in schools. It recommends that the app be used and switched on where possible, unless phones are required by schools to be left in lockers or bags in communal areas at all times.

    UNISON believes that schools should permit and encourage staff and eligible pupils to use the app, see page 21 of the DfE guidance. Schools should also follow alerts from the app to self-isolate when directed.

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


  • Ventilation

    What is the government’s guidance on airborne transmission?

    Significantly the government and Public Health England now recognise the role of airborne transmission, particularly in poorly ventilated places where groups of people spend long periods of time together (this crucial new information is particularly important for schools). See section 7, ‘keeping occupied spaces well ventilated’ of the DfE guidance for more information.

    Schools should seek to achieve both ventilation and thermal comfort by opening windows and doors (where fire regulations permit it), keeping heating on and taking other steps to ensure constant flow of fresh air throughout the building. Schools should not use rooms which lack adequate ventilation, for example where windows cannot open.

    How do I identify poorly ventilated areas?

    Where your school (or parts of it) are poorly ventilated, employers need to improve ventilation in those areas to reduce the risk of airborne transmission.

    There are some simple ways to identify poorly ventilated areas:

    • Look for areas where there is no mechanical ventilation or no natural ventilation, such as opening windows and vents etc, unless doors are opened very frequently
    • Check that mechanical systems provide outdoor air, temperature control or both. If a system (eg a local air conditioner) is recirculating only and doesn’t have an outdoor air supply, or a separate source of outdoor air, the area is likely to be poorly ventilated
    • Identify areas that feel stuffy or smell badly
    • Use carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors to identify the CO2 levels to help decide if ventilation is poor. CO2 monitors are most effective for areas that are regularly attended by the same group of people. They are less effective in areas with low numbers of people

    Should my school keep open its windows to reduce the risk of infection spreading?

    All evidence to date suggests that ventilation is hugely important in helping reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading (risk decreases outdoors).

    Please see page 5 of the joint union checklist. The section called ‘Ensuring good respiratory hygiene’ sets out the measures your school should be taking in this regard. If your school is not following these measures, please contact your local rep or UNISON branch.