This guidance has been updated in light of the wider reopening of schools following the national lockdown [England from 8 March 2021, and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland with slightly earlier and/or phased returns].

All schools and colleges face a major challenge to ensure safe and adequate educational provision for pupils and staff. For boarding schools, the challenge is acute.

Around 70,000 pupils attend UK independent boarding schools, of whom approximately 40 per cent are overseas pupils whose parents live abroad. There are a further 5,000 pupils in state boarding schools.

The challenge is different for each school. It will be easier for those with more space, greater facilities, and smaller class sizes.

How to conduct lessons safely is just one of boarding schools’ concerns. Pupils spend a lot of time together with staff acting ‘in loco parentis’.

While day schools have taken a financial hit, it is not as bad as many first feared. However, for boarding schools the potential loss of income is greater due to the uncertainty of if, and when, international boarders will return.

The current situation is fluid and fast-moving. This is in respect of both Government rules for each of the home countries in the UK, and measures in the home countries of overseas boarders.

This advice is not intended to be comprehensive but as a supplement to main NEU coronavirus guidance for all members, Joint union checklist and the NEU independent sector FAQs.

International travel and overseas boarders

Several countries providing a significant proportion of overseas boarders, such as China, including Hong Kong, and Germany have taken strong measures affecting the return of pupils to the UK.

Just before Christmas 2020, all direct flights between the UK and mainland China were suspended. At the time of writing, this measure remains in place. Germany has warned against non-essential travel to the UK, as an area with a particularly high infection risk and virus variants.

UK entry requirements and self-Isolation/quarantine

Visitors to the UK are required to take two coronavirus tests after arrival in England, which need to be booked before travel. On arrival, a completed passenger locator form and proof of a negative coronavirus test is required.

Visitors must then quarantine for 10 days, either in the place they are staying, or in a managed quarantine hotel, depending on which country they are travelling from/have recently been to.

The government advice on entering the UK gives details of the countries on the banned travel list, or so-called ‘red list’. Pupils from a 'red list' country are not yet permitted to return, unless they have a right to reside, when they would be required to quarantine in a Government hotel. All other international students are permitted to quarantine in their boarding houses.  

Consequently, many boarding schools have put in place arrangements for supported return, including being met at the airport and for quarantining. Some schools are also considering the test to release scheme.

Covid-19 testing for staff and pupils

As with all schools, boarding schools will be facilitating Lateral Flow Device [LFD] tests to help detect asymptomatic cases. See guidance on testing in secondary schools and testing in primary schools

Following the wider reopening of schools from 8 March 2021, secondary school pupils in England are required to test three times at school on their initial return. Thereafter, there will be voluntary, twice-weekly, rapid home testing for all secondary and college pupils. For boarders, this will mean undertaking the test in their boarding house.

There is no change to the system of testing for primary schools.

It is recommended that all staff in primary and secondary settings test twice a week, with home testing kits provided from the time they return to school.

Testing is voluntary.

Some schools have invested in their own rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19, such as the SAMBA II machine developed by the University of Cambridge.

Other medical steps being taken include taking antibody tests, conducting daily temperature checks for pupils and staff, and implementing a school-based track and trace system.

Who can authorise vaccinations?

Boarding schools act ‘in loco parentis’, so questions can arise on authorising vaccinations.

Government regulation states that people aged 16 or over are entitled to consent to their own treatment. Children under the age of 16 can consent to their own treatment if they are believed to have enough intelligence, competence and understanding to fully appreciate what is involved in their treatment. Otherwise, someone with parental responsibility can consent for them.

For further information, see the NHS guidance on consenting to treatment.

What does the Government say about pupils showing symptoms?

If a pupil in a boarding school shows symptoms, they should initially self-isolate in their boarding house (or the accommodation they stay in while at school). Most children will benefit from self-isolating in their boarding house so that their usual support can continue. Others will benefit more from self-isolating in their home.

The Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students (AEGIS) states that host families and educational guardians are not able to take over the care of students who have symptoms or have tested positive for Covid-19 at boarding school.

If an individual has tested positive you should follow guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) infection.

Social distancing in boarding schools

Beyond social distancing in normal school provision, boarding schools must consider bedrooms, bathrooms, meals and evening social activities. The distancing implemented depends on Government regulations and the space available and should take account of the increased transmissibility of the new variant.

The Government’s social distancing advice continues to be that everyone should stay two metres apart where possible, or one metre where extra precautions are in place (such as wearing face coverings or increasing ventilation indoors).

Two metres is not practical in many schools and can be particularly problematic in boarding schools.

It is not just a case of leaving every other seat, or bed, empty. For example, a boarding school whose dining hall usually caters for 200, concluded that it would only be able to safely accommodate 60, considering safe distancing not only at the individual table, but in respect of tables in front and behind.

Smaller cohorts of pupils require additional space. Schools have looked and continue to look at utilising areas not previously used for teaching, including sports and assembly halls and outside areas.

Use of school ‘bubbles’ to help reduce contact

Government guidance requires schools to keep children in consistent groups and avoid contact between those groups to minimise the risk of virus transmission.

School group ‘bubbles’ – where small groups of pupils live, study and mix exclusively within that group, with designated staff – have particular application in boarding schools. Having all children on site may pose less of a risk if they are all boarders and not coming and going and mixing with others. Being in small groups and not mixing might mean that they are designated as a household, which helps with sharing facilities, eating together and distancing.

Separate, smaller, groups reduce general contact and potential exposure to infection. They also make the management of any outbreak easier. It is simpler to identify those in contact with the infected person. It reduces the number of pupils and staff who might need to isolate.

Additional complexity regarding ‘bubbles’ arises in schools which have a mixture of day, flexi, and full-time boarders: in particular, how the school deals with flexi boarders.

It is important that staff mixing is kept to a minimum, with many boarding houses/bubbles having dedicated pastoral staff, including relief staff.

Making socially distanced and remote learning for boarders work

Schools are using different areas and creating additional spaces for learning where possible, such as common rooms, ICT suites in boarding houses and even outside space.

As in all schools, learning is not simply being in a classroom, or glued to a screen, but includes tasks and worksheets, and boarding schools are creatively thinking about other ways of teaching and learning.

The current position on face masks

Following the wider reopening of schools from 8 March 2021, secondary school pupils and staff in England are advised to wear face coverings in classrooms and in all situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. These measures will be reviewed at Easter. Children of primary school age do not need to wear a face covering.

Additional cleaning – protecting pupils and staff

Additional cleaning is required.

Particular attention needs to be paid the safety of those staff coming into close contact with the pupils, including house parents, school nurses, cleaners and, in particular, staff dealing with laundry.

Comprehensive risk assessments

It is a legal requirement for schools to revisit and update their risk assessments. Boarding houses need to carefully consider all elements of their provision in their risk assessments.

Among other things, this includes carrying out additional risk assessments for the wide variety of extracurricular activities. For example, schools have replaced contact sports such as rugby with other non-contact sports, such as running.

As mentioned above under cleaning, specific assessment needs to be made of the additional risk to staff exposed to greater risk in general and their own personal circumstances, through individual risk assessments.

Risk assessments must be fully reviewed considering Government requirements for the wider reopening of schools from 8 March in England. Schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted for an earlier and/or phased returns.

The Boarding School Association [BSA]

The BSA has much useful information and guidance on its website. This includes the BSA Charter and BSA Checklist and Nurse Advisors’ guidance on medical considerations, both available here (the checklist appears halfway down the page and the nurses’ guidance is attached to the checklist).

Using NEU & BSA guidance and checklists

We recommend that members use both the NEU guidance and checklists and those provided by the BSA. Some areas will need to be fleshed out. For example, the BSA Charter sets out required appropriate social distancing in all areas of the school and required regular hand washing by pupils and staff. The NEU checklist provides detail on implementing social distancing and hand-washing regimes.

Supplementary health and safety questions

To supplement the NEU and BSA checklists, as appropriate, you may wish to ask the following questions. The list is not exhaustive, and you should ask other questions you think relevant.

  • What procedures are in place for the testing of staff and pupils?
  • What measures will be taken to manage a Covid-19 outbreak? How will staff nursing children with Covid-19 be protected?
  • Where instigated, who is subject to temperature checks and how does the system operate?
  • Is PPE being provided to all staff in circumstances where social distancing is not possible, and are staff being trained in its use and disposal?
  • Are staff and students who are required to, and others who wish to, wear face coverings permitted to do so?
  • How is safe occupancy of premises being achieved in classrooms, bedrooms, dining areas and bathrooms?
  • Are pupils' clothes laundered daily and has relaxation of uniform requirements been considered?
  • Are cleaning standards as set out in public health guidance being followed?
  • In what circumstances will pupils be able to leave the site and what measures will be in place to ensure this happens in a safe manner?

Workload and pay

Safety measures, such as smaller cohorts of pupils and division between day, flexi and full boarders mean that additional staff cover is likely be needed.

Of course, staff should show flexibility and commitment to make new arrangements work. However, it is not reasonable to expect staff to undertake significant additional work, or take on extra responsibilities, without remuneration.

Where there is still a recognised need to maintain some form of online provision, this must be facilitated without increasing workloads.

Staff who were required back at work early to cover the 10-day quarantine of overseas students should be paid. Additional substantial ‘catch-up’ provision, which is beyond usual expectation, should be by agreement and paid. Any substantial change to the academic year/holidays should be by agreement and paid as appropriate.

Increased cleaning by dedicated cleaning staff should be paid. Where this service is contracted-out, schools should ensure staff are properly remunerated for any additional work.

The professional view of staff should be paramount

As the professionals delivering teaching and pupil support, over the whole range of boarding provision, you are best-placed to judge whether the policy and practice in your school or college is effective.

For instance, in some areas, such as cleaning in non-health care settings, the Government has detailed specific measures to be taken. In other areas, it will be a matter of your judgement as to whether you are satisfied that adequate precautions are being taken in your workplace, including the safety of pupils and staff, workload and pay.

Many boarding schools are working well together with staff. Many schools are using the NEU checklists and guidance.

However, where your experience is not being used, or your concerns ignored, you should be confident to express your views. And the most effective way to do so is collectively, as part of the NEU.

The NEU is the largest and most influential professional association and education trade union in the UK and in the independent sector.

What should NEU members working in boarding schools do?

  • Read the relevant NEU guidance on coronavirus.
  • Discuss with fellow NEU members and other colleagues.
  • Ensure you have an NEU rep, or even better, a small rep team at your school.
  • Raise the issues with senior managers, sharing any relevant guidance or checklist.

If the response is unsatisfactory consider escalating the matter. For support in challenging unsafe working conditions, unreasonable workload demands, or pay concerns, contact your NEU district secretary or Regional Office.

Further information and advice

There is extensive information and guidance on the NEU website – visit the main pages for the latest NEU advice and guidance on coronavirus. See also, the NEU independent sector coronavirus FAQs.

For specific advice, contact the NEU AdviceLine on 0345 811 8111 or adviceline@neu.org.uk.    

The Boarding School Association provides much useful advice.

For guidance on guardianship organisations for international students studying in the UK see the Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Travel to and from other countries.

Operational guidance from the DfE: Schools coronavirus (Covid-19) operational guidance

For cleaning standards, see Public Health England guidance on coronavirus and cleaning standards.

Government guidance on safe working in education, childcare, and children’s social care

Health and Safety Executive: Making your workplace Covid-secure during the coronavirus pandemic

DfE coronavirus guidance on running holiday and after-school clubs