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.
Making your school safer
In light of rising infection rates in schools UNISON has called on the Government to allow schools locally to move to blended learning and rotas to help keep pupils and staff safe and maintain educational provision. To ensure effective online learning, the government should urgently fund all necessary equipment for pupils that need it, so that high quality education can continue.
We are also calling on the Government to allow schools to move to full online learning two weeks before Christmas.
We believe that current government guidance does not go far enough to keep school staff and pupils safe, so we are calling for urgent measures to help protect them while they are in schools.
Whilst we are campaigning for a change in government guidance for schools we also need to protect staff and pupils in schools at this very moment by securing enhanced safety measures.
We therefore urge members to use our model letter to write to their local schools with a copy of the new joint unions’ checklist, seeking an urgent commitment to implement the measures UNISON and the joint unions are seeking. Please see our special schools FAQ below for more information on the measures we are seeking for special schools.
Staff at higher risk
Your employer should carry out an individual risk assessment for any member of staff who requests one, for example if they are in a vulnerable group or live with someone who is at higher risk.
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. This asks them to take your situation into account when deciding whether it is safe for you to come into the workplace, or whether additional safety measures are required.
Under the new lockdown rules all clinically extremely vulnerable employees should now be working from home (or working from home on full pay if their role cannot down from home). UNISON also believes this will be safest option for some other employees with underlying vulnerabilities. Please read our joint unions advice for vulnerable employee carefully.
Please get in touch with your local UNISON branch if your school’s response concerns you.
If you have serious health and safety concerns about returning to the workplace, please read this advice very carefully.
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.
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?
The point of a bubble is to minimise the risk of infection by minimising contact and mixing and to allow easier identification of contacts. For this to work, groups need to be as consistent and as small as possible. UNISON is concerned that DfE advice for September states that bubbles can potentially be as large as entire year groups and that staff can move between classes and year groups.
UNISON’s advice is that employers should instead seek to maintain smaller groups – preferably no larger than a normal class in primary and KS3 and half a year group in KS4.
Schools should reduce bubble sizes to limit spreading the virus. Given that whole year bubbles may be leading to an increased spread and largescale closures, ensuring that bubbles are of a workable size will minimise the risk of infection spreading throughout the school.
In addition, schools should look to do all they can to keep staff within one bubble and minimise staff movement between bubbles. Schools should not permit routine movement between bubbles which undermines other safety measures
UNISON is clear that smaller bubbles are best to restrict possible infection spreading and so the use of larger bubbles must be rigorously risk-assessed. Employers must set out how they will manage and reduce any resulting increased risk.
What is UNISON’s advice on social distancing?
The arrangements adopted by schools for minimising contact and maintaining social distancing are vital for staff and student safety.
The DfE guidance is confusing and provides too many caveats (i.e. whole year bubbles, staff working across bubbles) and places too many burdens on schools, without providing them with necessary additional resources to reduce risks, for example increased cleaning.
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.
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 as new restrictions are announced. Please speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned about the safety measures in your school.
Vulnerable and higher risk groups
What should my employer be doing to protect me?
UNISON is concerned that the very limited measures in the DfE guidance mean social distancing in schools will realistically be very difficult and very little PPE will be provided. As a result, schools will have fewer protective measures in place to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 than most other workplaces.
Under the new lockdown rules all clinically extremely vulnerable employees should now be working from home (or working from home on full pay if their role cannot be done from home). UNISON also believes this will be the safest option for some other employees with underlying vulnerabilities.
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 advice we have produced for vulnerable employees. 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.
- Extremely clinically vulnerable staff
- Clinically vulnerable staff
- Pregnant staff or new mothers
- Older or male staff
- Overweight staff
- Black staff (the government uses the term BAME)
- Disabled staff
- Staff living with or caring for a family member who is medically vulnerable at higher risk
- Staff who are otherwise anxious about returning to work
Managing airborne transmission
What is the government’s guidance on airborne transmission?
Significantly the government and Public Health England have now admitted 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 8, ‘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 due to windows which cannot open. Also please see our advice on face coverings in the FAQ below
Will I be in breach of my contract if the government imposes a 14-day quarantine/self-isolation period whilst I’m away on holiday?
No. The DfE guidance for full opening contains the following statement under the ‘staff taking leave’ section:
“We recognise that school staff have been working extremely hard throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and will be working hard to prepare for all pupils to return from the start of the autumn term. Many staff will want to take a holiday over the summer period, which may involve travelling abroad. The government has set a requirement for people returning from some countries to quarantine for 14 days on their return. The latest guidance on quarantine can be accessed at coronavirus (COVID-19): how to self-isolate when you travel to the UK.
As would usually be the case, staff will need to be available to work in school from the start of the autumn term. We recommend that school leaders discuss leave arrangements with staff before the end of the summer term to inform planning for the autumn term.
There is a risk that where staff travel abroad, their return travel arrangements could be disrupted due to factors arising beyond their control in relation to coronavirus (COVID-19), such as the potential for reinstatement of lockdown measures in the place they are visiting.
Where it is not possible to avoid a member of staff having to quarantine during term time, school leaders should consider if it is possible to temporarily amend working arrangements to enable them to work from home.”
Should my school 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 school, and 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 strongly disagrees with this guidance. Risk assessments should decide whether PPE is necessary. We do not think that the DfE should make this blanket statement. Schools must ensure that they always have adequate supplies of PPE available. PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and medical grade face masks must be made available following a risk assessment and where it is not possible to implement government guidance on social distancing.
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.
Test and trace
What should my school be doing on test and trace?
UNISON is 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, parents and unions are alerted to any positive tests as early as possible to look out for others who might show symptoms.
After continued lobbying from UNISON, the Government has now confirmed that all education and childcare workers have priority access to testing. Schools with a confirmed case of coronavirus can contact DfE’s dedicated schools coronavirus helpline on 0800 046 8687 to seek advice on what action is needed.
UNISON believes that when a pupil or member of staff develops coronavirus symptoms or receives a positive test result within a bubble the rest of the bubble should move to studying from home. With smaller class/bubble sizes and the promised speeding up of test results this would be a sensible measure to reduce the potential spread of the virus across the school, hopefully preventing the need for a full closure of the school.
The DfE guidance has specific advice on test and trace – see ‘Section 1: Public health advice to minimise coronavirus (COVID-19) risks’ – point 9.
We have produced questions for you to ask your school on test and trace in sections 7, 8 and 9 of the joint union checklist.
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, following 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.
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:
- Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
- 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.
- 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:
- Conduct full risk assessments
- Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
- 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.
- Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the school
- Notify all staff and keep them updated on any development.
What is the guidance in cases of local outbreaks?
The DfE has produced guidance on local outbreaks – see section 5 ‘contingency planning for remote education’.
UNISON has also produced questions for you to ask your school on local outbreaks in our joint union checklist – see sections 7, 8 and 9 and ‘contingency planning’ on page 20.
UNISON is concerned that the government is placing a heavy responsibly on schools without additional support and resources to deal with local outbreaks. We are especially concerned about the number of pupils who have not received IT and internet provision from the government at the same time as they impose a legal duty on schools to provide remote education for pupils who are self isolating. We continue to push hard on all these issues.
UNISON is also 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 is so financial barriers are removed to enable outsourced staff to self-isolate 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 urgently raise them with your UNISON rep or local branch for advice and assistance.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
What are the guidelines for special schools?
The DfE has published separate guidance for special schools.
UNISON believes that special schools should include a review of existing protocols around positive handling or restraint of pupils in its Covid risk assessment. They should also conduct individual risk assessments to support staff working one-to-one with SEND pupils and offer additional PPE to staff if they work closely with pupils who are unable to social distance or come into close contact by spitting, scratching etc.
As part of our joint union risk assessment checklist we have produced a specific set of questions to raise with your employer – these can be found on page 21 under ‘Additional checklist for special schools’. Please ensure your school is aware of this checklist.
The November checklist and the rest of these FAQs apply to all school settings, including special schools. If you are facing issues in your school please raise with your rep or local branch.
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:
“Where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions. Teaching assistants may also be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher (under the Education (Specified Work) (England) Regulations 2012 for maintained schools and non-maintained special schools and in accordance with the freedoms provided under the funding agreement for academies). Any redeployments should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND. Headteachers should be satisfied that the person has the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work, and discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff. This includes ensuring that safe ratios are met, and/or specific training undertaken, for any interventions or care for pupils with complex needs where specific training or specific ratios are required.”
A key sentence in the DfE guidance is: ‘…discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member 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 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 producing further guidance on the deployment of teaching assistants.
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.
In many schools September re-opening should see a return to previous practice. Where bubbles/small classes remain, the school must do a risk assessment to ensure that any adjustment to ‘normal’ routine and/or staff moving between classes/bubbles does not increase risks. Some schools are operating 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.
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.
Can I wear a face covering at work?
Schools must comply with Government requirements, by ensuring that staff and pupils in Year 7 or above wear face coverings in communal parts of the premises and on dedicated school transport and taking other measures to reduce mixing and maintain social distancing.
Schools should, in accordance with the Health and Safety Executive Committee guidance, permit staff and pupils to wear face coverings anywhere in the premises in all schools and settings if they wish to do so.
In addition following the acknowledgement by government of the risk of airborne transmission, UNISON is calling on schools to 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 are also calling for urgent consideration of a requirement for face coverings in the classroom in primary school (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 the HSE advice. If your employer still refuses, contact your local branch.
If I have to self-isolate or my school is closed as a result of a local lockdown 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 due to a local lockdown?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 separate FAQ 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.
I am being asked to change my hours to cover staggered lunch breaks but I have responsibilities outside of work that make this impossible.
Many schools are choosing to operate a staggered lunch and/or break service to keep ‘bubbles’ separate and this does show that the school is putting safety of staff and pupils as a high priority when they do this. However, changing your hours of work is a change to the terms and conditions that you agreed to when you took the job and must not be done without your consent. There should be enough staff working to ensure that a rota can be covered without affecting anyone detrimentally and management should communicate with all staff concerned to find a solution that suits everyone.
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 have been told that not enough children are ordering school meals due to Covid and so I am going to be made redundant or lose my job.
In schools where there have been a high number of cases of children needing to isolate, there may have been a downturn in demand for school meals due to fewer children buying them. However 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 bet from these schemes and save jobs.
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.