The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to specific issues in special schools and for SEND in mainstream schools.
Where to find Government and NHS advice
The latest NHS advice on coronavirus and the Department for Education (DfE) Covid-19 guidance for educational settings are both being updated regularly. The NEU advises all members and school leaders to read and follow the latest advice; however, the union reserves the right to give different advice to the DfE. In Wales, read the advice from Public Health Wales and the Welsh Government. In Northern Ireland, read the advice from the Northern Ireland Department of Education, Education Authority and the Public Health Agency. In Scotland, refer to the Education Institute of Scotland website in line with our partnership arrangement with EIS.
Our frequently asked questions below cover:
Safety in schools
What is the NEU position on school opening?
Schools in England will fully open to all students from 8 March. In Wales, under sevens in the foundation phase are going back to school from 22 February, with other primary school children and older secondary students due back on 15 March. The final age groups, including years seven to nine, to return at the earliest after the Easter holidays.
The NEU is keen to see schools open more widely but this should only happen when the science says it is safe and in a manner which is safe.
We must ensure that schools do not become ‘vectors of transmission’ again. We are continuing to call on the Department for Education (DfE) to facilitate a staggered approach which does not increase local transmission rates, allowing schools to adopt phased returns and flexible rota systems, as well as the measures set out below, to help them maintain safety.
What precautions need to be taken to ensure schools and colleges are safe?
Risk assessments, including individual risk assessments, must be reviewed and updated and appropriate safety measures introduced and implemented.
All safety protocols, rotas and changes to normal duties should be negotiated with you rather than imposed on you.
The NEU escalation guidance may be used if you are concerned that your school is not reopening safely.
What advice is available on safety matters?
The NEU’s joint union checklist will assist you in discussing and agreeing plans with your employer. The advice sets out the measures which each employer should have considered. You can continue to use this guidance to ensure measures are followed. As the science develops, the guidance will be kept under review and may be revised, so please check it regularly.
The NEU has agreed joint advice to help colleges prepare for full education from September 2020 and updated advice is being discussed with the other further education (FE) unions and the Association of Colleges.
I have been asked to go into work before March 8th to prepare for wider reopening?
Schools should not be asking all their staff to be in before 8th March. You should only be on site if you are undertaking your normal teaching duties in accordance with working arrangements agreed earlier in January 2021. All safety protocols, rotas and changes to normal duties should be negotiated with you rather than imposed on you. The NEU believes arrangements such as a phased return or rota system based on blended learning should continue, at least until the start of the Easter holidays, to protect pupils, staff and the wider community and prevent schools becoming vectors of transmission again.
Are schools and colleges required to report cases of Covid-19 to any outside body?
Employers must by law report cases to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) where workers are diagnosed with diseases and there is reasonable evidence to suggest they caught them while at work. The requirement does not apply in relation to non-workers i.e. pupils, parents and carers, or visitors. Full details on when and how to report can be found here under the heading ‘Covid-19 and RIDDOR’. Most sick pay schemes provide that absences due to infectious illness contracted at work do not count against normal sick pay entitlement: ensuring routine reporting will help avoid disputes about this.
Can we refuse to work in school on health and safety grounds and will the law protect us?
Employers are legally required to ensure employee safety. The law (‘Section 44’) provides protection to employees individually if they leave or refuse to enter the workplace in circumstances which they reasonably believe to represent 'serious and imminent danger'. However, the NEU is currently advising members who have concerns about safety at the workplace to use the NEU escalation guidance to raise concerns and to seek NEU support locally.
Will there be rota working?
With schools and colleges fully open for all students from 8 March, the NEU believes arrangements such as a phased return or rota system based on blended learning should be implemented, at least until the start of the Easter holidays. This will manage numbers on site, help reduce increases in infection rates and protect students, staff and the wider community.
What should arrangements for teaching and learning look like?
Read the NEU’s advice on supporting learning at this time of transition.
I work in Early Years – what’s my position?
Early Years settings have been fully open since January and will continue to be. The NEU is committed to ensuring your safety at work - ensure that your employer updates its risk assessment and safety measures and, if you think that matters are not safe, use the NEU escalation guidance to raise concerns and seek NEU support locally.
I am in a vulnerable category - should I be in school?
Read the NEU advice on vulnerable and higher risk members and contact your employer to discuss safety measures for you personally.
The Government's shielding requirements for clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people end from 1st April 2021 but its advice continues to be that CEV staff should continue to work at home where possible. The NEU advises that CEV staff should therefore continue to be permitted to work at home, with no change to their schools' current arrangements being required. This NEU advice applies also to pregnant women in the third trimester of pregnancy who are, with limited exceptions, advised against vaccination.
The NEU advises in addition that staff classed as CV and staff who are aged 60-plus should be permitted to work from home, until they are advised by their GP that their initial vaccination has taken effect. Pregnant women are considered clinically vulnerable, and Government advice specifically states that all pregnant women are entitled to an individual risk assessment in relation to work. Anyone working at home should continue to be paid on their usual terms.
The NEU advice considers other groups of individuals as well. If you have a condition not mentioned in Government guidance, discuss the matter with your GP or specialist then with your head teacher. Don't be afraid to raise concerns with your head teacher. The NEU will support all members who have concerns about their position.
What about Black staff?
The NEU recognises the concerns of Black members about their particular vulnerability. The NEU’s advice for members in higher risk groups outlines the support which the NEU will offer. We have answers to frequently asked questions specific to Black educators.
What about staff who live too far from school to commute except by public transport?
There is an additional risk posed by travelling on public transport (in particular for lengthy journeys or ones involving changes – this should be taken into account in risk assessments and in decisions on staff attendance.
What is the NEU advice on social distancing?
Arrangements for minimising contact and maintaining social distancing are of vital importance for staff and student safety. The overarching principle is to minimise contacts and mixing by keeping groups separate (the ‘bubble’ approach) and maintaining social distance between individuals where possible. The NEU’s joint union checklist sets out various matters which employers should demonstrate they have considered in establishing their arrangements for social distancing (including our recommended minimum requirements) and for minimising contacts and mixing.
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 at all times and to allow easier identification of contacts. For this to work, groups need to be as consistent and as small as possible and staff should not work across bubbles. The NEU opposes the DfE advice that bubbles can potentially be as large as entire year groups and that staff can move between classes and year groups as necessary. Risk assessments should be reviewed to reflect the known greater transmissibility of the new variant and consideration of group size is part of this. The advice in the NEU’s joint union guidance is aimed at ensuring that employers do not adopt large-scale group sizes and movement, but instead set out measures for social distancing and maintenance of smaller groups.
What about distancing within the classroom?
What about arrival, departure and movement around the school?
Social distancing is important all around the school, not just in classrooms. The NEU has posed a series of questions in our joint union checklist o that staff and pupils can move safely through corridors, up and down stairs and around shared parts of the premises.
Can teachers be asked to do things which fall outside their normal duties?
No, your employer cannot force you to carry out duties that are clearly outside the scope of your role as a teacher. Staff should only be present in schools to supervise students and carry out essential duties. If you are not needed for those purposes, you should not be in school.
Do you have to go to another school to work if you are asked?
If you are fit to work and you are not self-isolating, you may be directed by your employer to work in another location, but your employer must make sure that all times that this request is reasonable, practical and your wellbeing/health are not at risk.
What about ensuring safety when working at home?
See the advice here.
What is the guidance on face masks as PPE and on wearing of face coverings?
The DfE has extended its advice on face coverings, but does not go as far as the NEU thinks necessary. Read the advice in the joint union checklist.
Does the NEU have any advice about ventilation in schools?
Ventilation is extremely important and can be achieved by a variety of measures including mechanical ventilation systems (which should circulate only fresh outside air) and natural ventilation by opening windows. In cooler weather, windows should be opened just enough to provide constant background ventilation and opened more fully during breaks to purge the air in the space). Opening internal doors and, if necessary, external doors can also assist with creating a throughput of air (as long as they are not fire doors and where safe to do so). Again, read the advice in the joint union checklist.
What if staff or students develop coronavirus or may have been exposed to coronavirus?
The procedure to be followed should be set out in the school’s plans. This should include arrangements for ensuring that staff and students suffering symptoms leave the premises safely, ensuring it is safe for them to return, testing and tracing for contacts, and potential closure in the event of a wider outbreak.
What advice does the NEU offer on vaccination?
See NEU detailed advice on vaccination. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation decided to move ahead with vaccination based on age as the quickest way to reduce deaths and hospitalisations, but the NEU will continue to press for education staff to be vaccinated as soon as possible to ensure full attendance from 8 March is both safe and sustainable.
What is the NEU response to the mass-testing programme?
Detailed advice on the programme is available here.
What is the position with regard to using and responding to the NHS Test and Trace app?
The DfE advice for schools and colleges instructs them to engage with the Test and Trace process. The NEU advises all members to install the app and comply with the process. Schools should not instruct staff to uninstall, disable or ignore contacts from the app. Staff who receive a notification to self-isolate should inform the appropriate person at work and then comply with that instruction. Schools should have processes in place, and make them known to staff, in relation to students' use of the app.
What should schools and colleges tell parents and staff in the event of a confirmed or suspected case of infection?
Workload and working entitlements in work or at home
How can we manage workload sustainably and avoid excessive workload?
These are not normal times. This is not education as usual. Running a Covid-secure school or college is workload-intensive, requiring teachers, support staff and leaders to do extra, time-consuming work. These extra demands cannot be added on to usual workload. If we are going to keep schools and colleges open and Covid-secure, as well as continuing to provide high quality teaching which responds to students’ learning loss and wellbeing needs, we need to make sure that teachers and support staff are not exhausted. Read the NEU’s advice on managing and reducing workload during Covid-19 here.
What NEU support is available for tackling workload problems during Covid-19?
The NEU's support for you during this period, in addressing workload problems as well as safety problems, is set out on our reps' advice page. Addressing workload is a key part of the advice in the joint union checklist and any issues and problems with workload should be treated as breaches of this and raised using the escalation procedure set out on the reps’ advice page.
What about pay progression, appraisal and performance management?
The NEU continues to call for all employers to agree that all eligible staff should receive pay progression automatically. Decisions cannot realistically be taken this year by reference to objectives set before the crisis. This approach should have been reflected both in appraisal or performance managements discussions and pay outcomes from the 2019/20 academic year. All employers should continue to properly reflect the impact of Coronavirus in discussions on objectives for 2020/21 and in mid-year reviews.
What can I do to ensure objectives set for me this year are reasonable?
Objectives must be SMART, fair and capable of being achieved, and objective-setting must take account of the pandemic. It would be unfair to set exam-related objectives, while expectations covered by other objectives must be capable of being achieved. The NEU will expect appraisal to be a positive process, with reviews deemed to be successful unless significant concerns have been raised, and for pay progression to be the norm.
Pay and sick pay when you cannot attend work
Will I get full pay if I need to continue working at home?
Yes – if you are working at home with the employer’s agreement, then you will get full pay.
What if I cannot go into school due to being vulnerable, or due to living with or caring for a vulnerable person?
If you are fit to work, you should discuss with your school the safety measures that need to be in place for you, which in some cases will include allowing you to continue to work at home. The NEU will support members to ensure their position is fully considered by their employer.
What if I am off sick?
Your sick pay entitlements will be set out in your contract. The NEU will expect all employers to continue to act in line with the current ACAS advice and provide full pay for all sickness absence, regardless of employees’ actual entitlement, and disregard such absence for the purpose of sickness absence management. Otherwise, employees who are unwell with Covid-19 symptoms may try to come into work, increasing the risk of transmission.
What if I am self-isolating in line with NHS advice?
The NEU expects all employers to act in line with ACAS advice and provide full pay for all such absence, regardless of contractual entitlements. This applies whether you are self-isolating as a precaution due to symptoms or self-isolating as a result of having been contacted by the NHS Test and Trace Service. Assuming you are fit to work, you should arrange with your employer what work you can do while at home.
Do I need to provide a sick note if I am sick or have to self-isolate?
Schools are not obliged to ask for medical certification for sickness absence, even after the first seven days during which employees can self-certify, and we hope that schools will not feel they need to request any evidence. If they do, you can obtain an “isolation note” from 111.nhs.uk which satisfies this requirement for yourself or someone else, by answering a few short questions. The NHS advice is that if you are well enough to work from home, you should not need to provide such a note.
What about notifying your employer about your fitness to return from sick leave?
When you are fit to return to work, notify your employer as normal then discuss whether you will be working at home or on a rota basis in school and at home.
What advice does the NEU offer on ‘Long Covid’?
Long Covid (or post-Covid syndrome) can cause long or short-term absence. Members should seek NEU advice where they are unable to attend work. Most sick pay schemes provide that absences due to infectious illness contracted at work should not count against normal entitlement or for absence management purposes. It is not appropriate for members with this condition to be subject to absence monitoring procedures. Long Covid may be capable, at least in some cases, of falling within the Equality Act 2010 definition of "disability", requiring reasonable adjustments.
What if I have to quarantine after returning from a holiday abroad?
You should seek your head teacher’s agreement that, if a quarantine requirement applies, you will be permitted to work at home. You will be available for work during quarantine and should not be asked to agree to take unpaid leave or make up time at another date. While any direction to work at school in breach of quarantine would be unreasonable and invalid, and the NEU does not accept that employers are necessarily permitted to deduct pay for non-attendance at the workplace in these circumstances, it is more difficult to offer protection against sanctions if you have booked a holiday after the announcement of quarantine requirements and without seeking such agreement.
Workload and working time
I am a classroom teacher employed on school teachers’ pay and conditions document (STPCD) terms and conditions. What are the limits on my contracted hours?
Legally you cannot be directed to work on more than 195 days a year or for more than 1,265 hours of directed time a year (for part-time teachers, pro rata arrangements apply). This has not changed due to the current situation. All school term days still count as working days, even if the school was closed, as teachers were nevertheless available for work and working at home. You should not accept any suggestion that school closures or partial closures mean you can be expected to “make up” some of this time by working longer than normal hours or for additional days. NEU general advice on working time is available here.
As a support staff member, I am being asked to work extra hours beyond my contractual working hours. What are my rights?
Support staff members employed on Green Book terms and conditions cannot be required to work more than their contracted hours. If asked to work additional hours, you have a right to refuse. If you agree to work additional hours, you should be compensated for this. Your contract of employment or staff handbook should provide details about the additional rates of pay you should expect to receive for overtime worked.
Support staff not employed on Green Book terms (for example, in the independent sector) will usually still have set hours and pay rates. You should not be regularly expected to work above and beyond those hours. Where there is agreement to do so, additional hours should be paid or there should be flexibility to take some time back. Further advice for support staff is here.
I teach in an independent school and do not have defined working hours in my contract. I am being expected to work longer than normally required – what are my rights?
Many teachers working in the independent sector do not have defined daily or weekly hours of work, although school holiday dates are usually defined. Contracts are often vague or contain catch-all phrases such as “whatever hours are considered reasonable for carrying out your duties.” There is also likely to be an unwritten expectation that teaching staff will take part in extra-curricular activities outside the teaching day.
A school cannot unreasonably increase hours of work. Your working time and its relationship to your pay is the core of a contract of employment. Some minor variation to accommodate business needs is acceptable, but major change without consultation and agreement is not. There are also protections against working excessive hours in the Working Time Regulations. You should seek NEU support if you feel that you are being treated unreasonably. Further information for independent sector teachers can be found here.
I work in the FE Sector. I have agreed to work additional contact hours with my students. What are my rights?
If you are in agreement and happy to increase your contact hours, we would expect you to receive additional pay for the additional workload, based on the model followed for your educational establishment. You should check your contract of employment or staff handbook to see how overtime is calculated and what the safeguards for working above your weekly hours are (taking into account your annual planned hours). The NEU expects members to receive sufficient planning and preparation time to reflect any change to the contact time required of them. If your college is unwilling to support you with additional time for planning and preparation then you have the right to refuse. To find out more, go here.
I am a school leader - what are my rights regarding my working hours?
The school teachers’ pay and conditions document (STPCD) provides no specified limits on school leaders’ working time, but the it does stipulate that employers must have regard to the need for a satisfactory work/life balance. Leaders employed on separate contractual arrangements may have a wide variety of contractual terms and obligations.
All employers, however, must adhere to the provisions of the Working Time Regulations which call for a maximum working week of 48 hours averaged over 17 weeks (or 26 weeks for residential settings). If you signed an “opt-out” form at your employer’s request, you can cancel that at any point, although you must provide your employer with notice. You can find further information on workload as a health and safety issue here.
School and college leaders should not be expected to work excessive hours over an extended period. Your wellbeing needs to be prioritised in order for you to lead and manage others effectively. If you are concerned about your working hours, speak to your line manager (or chair of governors if you are a head teacher or principal) to discuss ways of reducing the number of hours you are working. If that fails to address the problem, you can contact the NEU for further support.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until April 2021. Under the scheme, employees can receive up to 80 per cent of their wages (capped at £2,500) whilst furloughed. The scheme is flexible, in that employees can work some of their “normal” hours while furloughed for the remainder. Employers are required to pay the employer National Insurance and pension contributions for furloughed staff. To be eligible the employee must have been on the employer’s payroll by 23:59 on 30 October 2020.
If your employer is eligible to use the scheme and you are unable to work due to caring responsibilities as a result of school closures and there are no suitable alternatives, you may wish to discuss with your employer the possibility of being furloughed. See Government guidance for employees who can be put on furlough.
Specific advice for members in particular groups
Frequently asked questions for support staff on coronavirus.
We know that supply educators have experienced real difficulties since lockdown began. Those difficulties continue even with schools and colleges open.
Advice on medically vulnerable - whether clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) or clinically vulnerable (CV) - and higher risk groups.
Frequently asked questions for Black educators during the coronavirus crisis.
Advice on pregnancy and maternity and childcare rights during the Covid-19 crisis
NEU advice regarding the completion of initial teacher training courses and inducation of newly qualified teachers during the coronavirus crisis.
NEU advice and FAQs for members in post-16 colleges regarding Covid-19.
NEU advice on Covid-19 for members working in boarding schools during the coronavirus crisis.
Staff in independent schools should be consulted on any proposed significant changes to working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Coronavirus FAQs for centrally employed (Soulbury) members.