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 announced that schools will reopen to all pupils from 8 March.

UNISON believes that schools should be able to phase pupil’s return to school when the scientific advice shows that it is completely safe to do so. We have outlined several key measures below that we believe the DfE should implement before schools can fully re-open.

Safer Schools Plan

We will update this page shortly with new guidance and information to support members. If you have any urgent concerns, please contact your branch for support.

Please see UNISON’s Cymru/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland websites at the links above for further information on restrictions in these countries.

Until 8 March, schools will remain under current lockdown restrictions, where primary and secondary schools are closed to all except vulnerable and key worker’s children.

UNISON has worked continuously throughout this period to push for measures that would ensure the limited opening of schools was as safe as possible for staff and pupils.

Since the government announced that they were planning to reopen schools on 8 March, we have been pushing the Department for Education for the evidence behind its decisions, for additional safety measures to be included in its guidance for schools and early years settings and for schools and early years staff to be prioritised for the vaccine.

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

UNISON remains clear that members who work in schools 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. In light of the important change in the Government’s position, which we welcome, some previous national health and safety advice no longer applies.

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

If you have any concerns about your working environment please contact your branch for further advice.


How do school restrictions affect clinically vulnerable staff?

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

The joint unions have produced new guidance for vulnerable staff, which includes a model letter for you to send to your employer.

Guidance for vulnerable staff

The Local Government Association (LGA) has advised employers to follow the same guidance they circulated during the March lockdown for clinically vulnerable staff.

NJC 17 March circular – Coronavirus and working at home

NJC 23 March circular – COVID-19: critical workers

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.

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


New government guidance for schools

The Department for Education have published new guidance for schools on restricting attendance during the national lockdown.

We are dismayed that the new DfE guidance does not address concerns that UNISON and other unions have raised about the impact that new definitions of vulnerable and critical workers’ children will have on attendance and the ability to prevent viral transmission in schools. We are concerned that the widening of the definition of vulnerable category is being driven by the government’s complete failure to roll out IT equipment to all children in need, despite having 9 months to sort this.

We are therefore urging school leaders and headteachers to implement the following measures to protect pupils and staff from the new COVID strain:

  • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing
  • Staff should remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working

In special schools and alternative provision it will not be possible, or even appropriate, for every child to receive face-to-face provision every day. Schools must be allowed the flexibility to establish which vulnerable learners could be offered time in schools.


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, will remain open to all children during the lockdown. UNISON believes that early years settings must be treated in the same way as primary schools and should be closed except to vulnerable and key workers’ children. Where schools have the option of closing school based nurseries we would strongly recommend that they do so.

We urge the government to reconsider its decision to keep early year establishments open, despite concerns over a new COVID strain.

Read UNISON’s guidance on the latest government advice for early years

Why is early years being treated differently to schools?

The DfE has failed to provide any scientific advice for the different treatment of early years settings. If the Department for Education is to advise early years providers to continue to provide care while instructing other education providers to close, it must provide a clear and unequivocal scientific basis for doing so. If this evidence doesn’t exist, then the government cannot and must not put the safety of staff and local communities at risk.

UNISON is calling on the government to provide this evidence and further review guidance and increase support for the early years sector.

The DfE has stated that it believes, ‘Early years settings remain low risk environments for children and staff. 0-5 year olds continue to have the lowest confirmed rates of coronavirus of all age groups, and there is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children. Evidence shows that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission.’

However, speaking on the BBC, Calum Semple, professor of child health and a member of the government’s own scientific advisory committee said that the decision to keep early years settings was a political one and not one based on scientific advice. He states that any mixing is a risk and that there is no basis for treating early years differently from schools.

Early years settings in Northern Ireland and Scotland have closed to help prevent the spread of the virus, yet the DfE in England has said that it will withdraw funding from any nursery in England that closes, leaving many in an impossible position.

UNISON has received many messages from early years workers expressing their fear and anger at the way they are being treated as somehow less important than other education workers. We are taking these messages to the DfE and continue to urge them to change their position on keeping early years settings open.

What else is UNISON calling for?

UNISON believes that all early years settings will need to review their risk assessments as a result of the increased transmissibility of the new variant of COVID-19 and the increased risk to staff. We are calling for a review of the size of so called ‘bubbles’ and restricting further the number of children in these groups. Settings will also need to re-assess the risk to vulnerable staff and allow home working where possible.

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. We need to know more about the risk to staff and children about the impact of the new variant of the virus among young children before placing staff and communities at greater risk by re-opening all nurseries while infection rates are so high.

The government also needs to increase the short-term funding support to early years settings during this second wave to ensure that we have a sustainable sector when demand returns to normal.

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.

What happens to clinically vulnerable staff?

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

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

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 does not believe in light of the rapid transmission of the new strain that government guidance is sufficient to protect pupils, staff and their families. We are therefore urging school leaders and headteachers to implement the following measures:

    • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing (see FAQs on early years for our position on maximum bubble sizes in these settings)
    • Staff should remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working


    UNISON is clear that smaller bubbles that are fully contained are best to restrict possible viral transmission.

    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

    • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing for pupils and staff (see FAQs on early years for our position on maximum bubble sizes in these settings)
    • Ensure staff remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working except in exceptional circumstances

    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.

  • Managing airborne transmission

    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 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 where windows cannot open.  See our advice on face coverings in the FAQ below.

    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
  • Pupils’ access to schools

    Who is eligible to attend school?

    During the lockdown period, only children of critical workers and vulnerable children and young people should go to school. The government has confirmed that children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school or college if required, but has asked parents/carers to keep children home if they can. The DfE has published a full list of criteria for critical key worker roles and vulnerable children.

    The government guidance states that pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) are vulnerable. UNISON believes that this blanket definition is unhelpful and that headteachers and school staff should work closely with  parents to assess the best setting for children/young people. Please see our special schools FAQ for more details.

    UNISON is concerned that the list of critical key worker roles has significantly widened since the March lockdown. This has had an impact on attendance levels, which at some schools are much higher now than they were in March. We call on the government to urgently review the critical worker criteria. We believe that high numbers of pupils attending school during the lockdown will undermine staff efforts to maintain social distancing and prevent viral transmission.

  • Special schools/colleges and alternative provision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • Mass testing in schools

    What does mass testing mean for my school?

    Before the lockdown, the government announced that it wanted secondary schools and colleges to roll out the mass testing for staff and pupils in secondary schools in January using the fast turn-around lateral flow tests. The government wanted to use the tests in three ways:

    1. Mass testing pupils and staff before returning to schools after the holidays – though not being tested was not a barrier to attending schools
    2. For weekly testing of staff
    3. Serial testing (every day for 7 days) for ‘close contacts’ of confirmed Covid-19 cases, with a negative result allowing contacts to still attend schools instead of self-isolating if they so wish (UNISON has serious concerns about this aspect of the testing plan – see FAQ below).  They would self isolate and go for a PCR test if at any point they tested positive.

    The government is also now rolling out home testing kits for staff in primary schools.

    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.

    Some schools are using partial closure to pilot testing and are asking staff and parents/guardians to sign consent forms. We will be providing wording for school staff that makes clear that if you choose to agree to be tested you do not agree to use the results as an alternative to self-isolation at this stage. This will be available shortly.  We will also be calling on schools directly not to use the test as an alternative to self-isolation of close contacts

    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.


  • 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?

    During national lockdown, 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 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 due to the risk of airborne transmission, UNISON believes 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

    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.

  • Vaccination

    I have seen a lot of media reports about teachers being vaccinated. What about support staff?

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

    The decision on who will get the jab is the government’s but based heavily on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). UNISON has approached this body making our case.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • Catering

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

    Schools will not completely close since they are being asked to stay open to look after the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

    The government has expanded its definition of who it considers to be in both of these categories and therefore there may be more children on site than in previous lockdowns. Additionally all children who are entitled to Free School Meals will need to receive their entitlement. While some schools will choose to use the voucher system, you may be asked to provide packed lunches to be delivered or collected for this group of children.

    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.

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

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

  • 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

  • February half term

    Will schools be opening over the February half term? If so, do I have to come in and will I be paid?

    Some schools have indicated that they will be opening during February half term in order to provide support for the children of critical workers. This will be important provision for key workers.

    School staff who have been working in schools during this time however, also need a break. Staff should not be forced to work outside their normal contracted hours, particularly if they have caring commitments of their own.

    Many staff in schools are on term time only contracts. This means that they are not contracted or paid to work during school closure periods.

    If term time only staff are required to work outside their normal contracted hours, i.e. in the school holidays, then they should be paid for this. This is specified (para 4.5) of the NJC guidance on term time only working, which states, ‘If term time only employees are required to undertake work outside of their contracted hours, they must be appropriately remunerated.’

    Staff will normally be paid at their standard hourly rate if they are working on what is a normal working day. However, if staff are required to work on a weekend or a public holiday then we would expect overtime premiums to apply.

    These are normally agreed at local authority level but are typically time and a half for working on a Saturday and double time for Sundays or public holidays.

    In addition, we would also expect overtime premiums to apply if you work over the standard working week in any given working week. The standard week is normally 37 hours per week outside London and 36 hours per week in London. Some authorities have a shorter standard working week. Where staff are being required to work beyond the standard working week they should normally be paid at time and a half for these hours.

    We would expect schools to staff the rota on a voluntary basis in the first instance and to consider any booked holiday or caring commitments.

    If this becomes a regular working pattern, then consideration will need to be given to the annual leave accrued whilst working additional hours.

    If you need support, please contact your local branch.