This guidance has been updated for the new academic year commencing September 2021. It is not intended to be comprehensive but as a supplement to main NEU coronavirus guidance for all members.
Members should refer to the current joint union checklist and the joint union advice on medically vulnerable and higher risk groups. Also, see the independent sector Coronavirus FAQs.
There is good cause for optimism that the pandemic appears to be on the wane and due to the success of the vaccine programme.
However, the NEU believe that it is essential that we remain vigilant and take all reasonable precautions. The risk has not gone away. Confidence amongst staff, pupils, and their parents here and abroad needs to be rebuilt.
The NEU believes that the Government has acted hastily in rescinding much of the mandatory requirements. We believe that schools should take a precautionary approach. We think that many of the sensible measures taken during the pandemic should continue where appropriate.
An employer has a duty of care to safeguard their employees’ health and safety. Educational establishments have a duty of care to the pupils. Schools should take all necessary measures to minimise the risk of coronavirus to staff and pupils and visitors.
It is also important that schools are seen to be taking considered but robust measures to reassure parents. Trust and confidence is paramount in any school. And for fee-paying schools it is a commercial imperative. For boarding schools rebuilding overseas parents’ confidence is critical.
The challenge to ensure safe provision for pupils and staff in the face of coronavirus is different for each school. It is easier for those with more space, greater facilities, and smaller class sizes.
Boarding schools’ have additional concerns given that boarders spend a lot of time together in social settings, with staff acting ‘in loco parentis’.
Then, of course, there is the international dimension. Slow initial government response, chopping and changing regulations, and new variants have eroded confidence overseas.
Boarding schools need to pay attention to Government rules for international travel for overseas boarders both here, and in their home countries.
Boarding school numbers
65,000 pupils attend UK independent boarding schools, according to the Independent School Council (ISC) Survey 2021. This is a drop of 12% drop on 2020. Approximately 40 per cent are overseas pupils whose parents live abroad. There are a further 5,000 pupils in state boarding schools.
International travel and overseas boarders
Countries providing a significant proportion of overseas boarders, such as China, including Hong Kong, and Germany have strong measures affecting travel to and from the UK.
At the time of writing in August 2021, direct flights between the UK and China and Hong Kong are suspended, with the UK being classified as "extremely high-risk". Germany has warned against non-essential travel to the UK, as an area with a particularly high infection risk and virus variants.
Decline in overseas boarders
The latest ISC annual census showed that 24,674 non-British pupils with parents overseas in January 2021, down 16% from a year earlier. Of these, mainland Chinese students comprised the largest single group, at 6,033, and represented the greatest decline: down by more than a quarter from 2020. A critical question is whether the decline in overseas boarders is temporary or permanent.
Travel and quarantine
Government requirements for international travel are subject to regular change. It is advisable to check directly with the latest Government requirements.
Where pupils travel from abroad to attend a boarding school in England must adhere to travel legislation, details of which are set out in Government travel advice.
Additional guidance has been issued on the quarantine arrangements for boarding school pupils travelling from red-list countries to attend a boarding school in England.
Government requirements for schools
The Government’s guidance for Schools COVID-19 operational guidance covers boarding schools and, at the time of writing, was updated 19 July 2021.
The major changes for schools are that there is no longer a legal requirement for social distancing, bubbles, and face masks; nor to self-isolate on being a close contact of someone testing positive.
From 16 July 2021, schools are no longer required to maintain social distancing, operate school “bubbles” or require face masks.
From 16th August 2021, pupils aged under 18 are no longer legally required to self-isolate solely because they are a close contact of someone who tests positive.
What are boarding schools doing?
Boarding schools are reviewing their Risk Assessments and measures taken to minimise the risk of infection. Many schools share the NEU precautionary view.
Enhanced cleaning, improved ventilation, and hygiene regimes are likely to remain in place. And there are general benefits of such measures. For example, a focus on good ventilation will pay dividends beyond the end of the pandemic as it aids concentration.
Practical measures taken to address capacity and circulation may stay in place. Some schools have been able to effectively redeploy new areas of space for pupil teaching and recreation.
Boarding schools are considering the use of bedrooms and bathrooms, and gathering at meals, and evening social activities.
A reduction of the number of pupils in dormitories ensure there is more space available for each pupil. Allocated bathrooms and designated areas also have their benefits. Some boarding schools will keep changes made to the layout of areas such as Common Rooms to aid with social distancing.
Many have Isolation dorms which will be needed for any future outbreak.
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.
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 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 self-isolating?
From 16th August 2021 pupils aged under 18 are no longer legally required to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone who tests positive. Instead, they are advised to take a PCR test and self-isolate if positive.
Self-isolation would usually be in their boarding house (or the accommodation they stay in while at school). Some boarding schools have specially designated boarding rooms. 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.
Outbreak management plan
As part of risk assessment, there should be contingency planning in the event of a localised outbreak. Consideration should be given to the employment of previous precautionary measures such as reintroducing school ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period.
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.
All-boarder groups, separate to day, or flexi, boarders, help to minimise the coming and going and mixing with others.
Consideration should still be given to keeping staffing consistent to minimising the risk of infection through mixing. Many boarding houses having dedicated pastoral staff, including relief staff.
Additional cleaning – protecting pupils and staff
The NEU recommends that the more intensive cleaning regime introduced during the pandemic is continued for the immediate future.
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 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, including contact sports.
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. Personal protective equipment should be continued to be provided as appropriate.
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 the NEU guidance and checklists and those provided by the BSA.
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?
- Is PPE being provided to all staff in circumstances where appropriate, and are staff being trained in its use and disposal?
- Are staff and students who wish to wear face coverings permitted to do so?
- Has there been an assessment of safe occupancy of premises in classrooms, bedrooms, dining areas and bathrooms?
- Are pupils' clothes laundered on a more regular basis?
- 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 any school arranged 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 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.
In some areas, such as cleaning in non-health care settings, the Government has outlined measures to be taken. In other areas, it will be a matter of your judgement as to whether you are satisfied that adequate provision has been made for 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.
The NEU has provided consistent and practical guidance which has been effectively used in schools and boarding houses. We have influenced the debate and measures taken by Government.
If 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.
What should NEU members working in boarding schools do?
- Read the relevant NEU guidance on coronavirus.
- Discuss with fellow NEU members and other colleagues.
- Compare the joint union checklist and BSA checklist against your school policy.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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