This checklist has been issued by the joint unions (GMB, NEU, UNISON and UNITE) for use from November 2020 onwards in schools and colleges. Faced with worsening impact of the pandemic upon schools, the joint unions want to support schools in remaining safely open, but do not have confidence that the measures set out in Government guidance are sufficient on their own to achieve this purpose.

The NEU has established a Hardship Fund to provide financial assistance to members facing financial difficulties as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

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Where to find Government and NHS advice

The latest NHS advice on Coronavirus and the DFE guidance about the Coronavirus for educational settings are both being updated regularly. The NEU advises all members and all school leaders to read and follow the latest advice but reserves the right to give our own different advice if we disagree with the DfE’s advice on any matter. In Wales, read the advice from Public Health Wales and the Wales Government.  In Northern Ireland, read the advice from the  Northern Ireland Department of EducationEducation 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 schools remaining safely open?

The joint unions (GMB, NEU, UNISON and UNITE) have issued this checklist to support schools in remaining safely open. They not have confidence that  Government guidance is sufficient on its own to achieve this purpose.

What is the NEU position on colleges?

NEU's position is that all colleges need to have agreed risk assessments with the college health and safety rep. There is specific joint sector guidance here to be used for this. The guidance provides a detailed checklist of all major issues faced by colleges in reopening safely. It also has links to all current DfE guidance and provides guidance on how to implement that guidance in the FE sector with safety as a priority. 

Many colleges are taking a blended approach to learning to enable social distancing between learners and learner groups, such as 50% on-site and 50% off-site learning. This reduces the need for learners and staff to be always on-site thus minimising contact between individuals and the spread of infection.

What discussion needs to take place before decisions are taken?

The NEU’s joint union checklist will assist you in discussing and agreeing plans with your employer. Employers should be discussing and agreeing plans with all staff and ensuring safety measures are in place.  The checklist sets out the measures which each employer should be considering.  As the science develops, the checklist will be kept under review and may be revised.

What discussion should have taken place and continue to take place on opening?

The NEU’s joint union checklist will assist you in discussing and agreeing plans with your employer. Employers should have discussed and agreed plans with all staff and ensured safety measures are in place.  The checklist sets out the measures which each employer should have considered.  You can continue to use the checklist to ensure measures continue to be followed.  As the science develops, the checklist will be kept under review and may be revised.

I am in a vulnerable category - should I be in school?

The DFE argues that most staff will be able to attend school where the necessary protective measures set out in its guidance, in particular cleaning, hygiene and social distancing arrangements, are applied.  The NEU does not accept that all staff will be able to return to work, even with stringent safety measures, and expects all employers to conduct individual risk assessments for staff who at medically vulnerable or in other higher risk groups including according to age and ethnicity.  

Read the NEU advice on vulnerable and higher risk members and contact your employer to discuss safety measures for you personally.  The NEU advises in particular that all staff classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, and all women in the third trimester of pregnancy, should be permitted to work at home.  Specific NEU advice and support for clinically extremely vulnerable staff can be found here.  The NEU will support all members who have concerns about their position. 

What about Black staff?

The NEU shares the concerns of Black members about their particular vulnerability as outlined in this NEU briefing.  We have answers to frequently asked questions specific to Black educators. The NEU’s advice for members in higher risk groups outlines the support which the NEU will offer.

What should arrangements for teaching and learning look like in the autumn term?

Read the NEU’s advice on supporting learning at this time of transition.

What is the NEU advice on social distancing and school opening?

The arrangements adopted by schools for minimising contact and maintaining social distancing between individuals are of vital importance for staff and student safety. The DFE’s overarching principle is to minimise contacts and mixing by keeping groups separate (the ‘bubble’ approach) and maintain 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 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.  The NEU is concerned at 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.  The advice in the NEU’s joint union checklist is aimed at ensuring that employers do not simply adopt the much larger scale of group sizes and movement mentioned in the DFE advice but seek to maintain smaller groups - ideally no larger than a normal class in primary and KS3 and half a year group in KS4 - and also set out what measures for social distancing and other safety measures they are adopting to manage risk if they are proposing larger group sizes than these.

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 so that staff and pupils can move safely through corridors, up and down stairs and around shared parts of the premises.

What is the NEU position on face masks as PPE and on wearing of face coverings?

Face coverings which are not medical-standard masks are not classed as PPE and are not intended to protect the wearer - they are intended to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 if the wearer happens to have it.  The latest DfE advice states that early years settings and primary schools have the discretion to require their use in indoor areas where social distancing cannot be maintained.  Secondary schools and FE colleges, however, must require the use of face coverings in all indoor areas by adults and students where social distancing cannot be maintained, such as corridors and communal areas.   

The NEU believes that schools should require face coverings to be worn indoors at all times including in classrooms by staff and students in secondary and by teachers in primary and SEND settings.  They should also be worn by parents at the school gates.

The NEU believes that, while the current DfE advice remains in place, any students or members of staff who choose to wear a face covering for purposes of personal or collective reassurance should be permitted to do so.  The NEU expects schools and colleges to respect this reasonable position. This reflects the Health and Safety Executive’s advice that if staff choose to wear face coverings, this should be supported by employers.  Should any head teacher seek to prevent the wearing of face coverings, the NEU will support members who wish to secure a reversal of that position.

The law requires employers to provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) when risks to health and safety cannot adequately be controlled by other measures.  In some situations, such as work with pupils whose behaviour creates a greater risk of airborne transmission of the virus, staff may need to wear medical face masks. On this basis, the NEU believes that PPE should be provided for all staff working in SLD and PMLD settings, and should also be provided in other settings for use where risk assessments suggest this is appropriate, including when supervising students who are unwell and awaiting collection and when working in some Early Years settings. Where PPE is provided, there should be training in its proper use and disposal.

Staff and students may wish to wear face coverings in other situations to reassure themselves or others. Face coverings which are not medical masks are not classed as PPE and there is debate over the level of protection they provide to the wearer or to others. The World Health Organisation does, however, now recommend that face coverings are worn in public places including schools. The NEU position is that staff and students should be permitted to wear face coverings if they wish to do so for reasons of personal reassurance.

You can find more information about face coverings and PPE here.

What if staff or students develop coronavirus or may have been exposed to coronavirus?

In the event of a case being confirmed at a school or college, 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 is the position with regard to using and responding to the NHS Test & Trace app?

The DFE advice for schools and colleges instructs them to engage with the Test & 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?

Read this advice for full advice on this area including on the data protection issues involved.

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 ‘workload as usual’.  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 our joint union checklist, and any issues and problems with workload should be treated as breaches of the checklist and raised using the escalation procedure set out on the reps advice page.

What about pay progression, appraisal and performance management?

The NEU is calling to all employers to agree that all eligible staff should receive pay progression this year automatically.  Decisions cannot realistically be taken this year by reference to objectives set before the crisis.  This should be reflected both in any appraisal or performance managements discussions reviewing the 2019-20 academic year and in discussions looking forward to 2020-21.  Please see here for more details.

What can I do to ensure objectives set for me this year are reasonable?

Objectives must be SMART, fair and capable of being achieved.  Objective-setting for 2020-21 must take account of the continuing impact of coronavirus.  With exam arrangements extremely uncertain and outcomes possibly likely to ignore the impact of teachers' individual work with students, it would be unfair to set exam-related objectives.  Expectations covered by other objectives must be capable of being achieved. 

Appraiser/appraisee contact such as review meetings and observations may be affected, and there may be reduced access to support and professional development.  The crisis will also continue to have a particular impact on certain groups and objectives must take account of this as well.  The NEU will expect appraisal to be a positive process, with reviews deemed to be successful unless significant concerns have been raised, and pay progression 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 can’t 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 in order 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 simply 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 & 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 that they need to request any evidence.  If they do, you can obtain an “isolation note” from 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 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 if I have to quarantine after returning from a holiday abroad?

The NEU does not expect any member to be asked to cancel holidays booked before the announcement of quarantine requirements, especially where full reimbursement cannot be secured.  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 the quarantine period and the NEU believes that any direction to work at school in breach of the statutory quarantine requirement would be an unreasonable and therefore invalid direction.  You should be permitted to work at home and should not be asked to agree to take unpaid leave or "make up time" at another date. The NEU does not accept that employers are necessarily permitted to deduct pay for non-attendance at the workplace in these circumstances and will vigorously challenge any such deductions on your behalf.

If you are have not booked a holiday, the NEU advises you not to do so without first securing your head teacher’s agreement that you will be permitted to work at home during any quarantine period following your return.  It will be more difficult to argue that a direction to work at school is unreasonable if you have booked a holiday after the announcement of the quarantine requirement and without seeking such agreement.

The provisions of the Burgundy Book and Green Book agreements do not contain provisions which conclusively cover this situation where employees are not themselves sick or living with someone who is sick.  The above approach, however, can be applied to all employment and all contractual working time arrangements.

Workload and working time

I am a classroom teacher employed on School Teachers Pay & Conditions Document 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 that 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 & 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 (e.g. 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 for the additional time around 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 STPCD 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 the Working Time Regulations here and advice on workload as a health & 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.

Being furloughed 

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until March 2021. Under the Scheme, employees can receive up to 80% of their wages (capped at £2,500) whilst furloughed. The Scheme is flexible to employees can work some of their “normal” hours whilst 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.

Can we refuse to work in school on health & safety grounds and will the law protect us?

Employers are legally required to maintain safety by implementing safety measures, reviewing procedures regularly, consulting with union reps and staff and seeking expert advice. 

In any situation where serious issues on staffing or hygiene have not been rectified and are posing an imminent danger of infection – for example, cleaning is not being carried out properly or social distancing measures are not being complied with – you should first of all make sure that your head teacher or principal is informed (by your rep if you have one) about your concerns.  If that doesn't resolve the matter, get in touch with the union for advice.  

The law provides some 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'.  You should always seek union advice, however, other than in extreme situations such as a clear danger to life.

Specific advice for members in particular groups