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 precautions need to be taken to ensure schools and colleges are safe?
The vast majority of Covid-19 restrictions, including social distancing, have now been lifted. However, Covid-19 is still in our communities and schools should take the necessary steps to keep children and staff safe.
Risk assessments, including individual risk assessments, must continue to be reviewed and updated and appropriate safety measures introduced and implemented. All safety protocols, rotas and changes to normal duties should continue to be negotiated with you rather than imposed on you.
The NEU escalation guidance may be used if you are concerned about your school’s safety arrangements.
What advice is available on safety matters?
The NEU’s joint union checklist for schools 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 scientific knowledge changes, the guidance will be kept under review and may be revised, so please check it regularly.
The joint advice for colleges published in September 2021 by the further education (FE) unions and the Association of Colleges is still available but should be read in conjunction with the above advice.
What should arrangements for teaching and learning look like?
Read the NEU’s advice on supporting learning at this time of transition.
What is the NEU’s guidance on face coverings and on face masks?
Staff and students should be permitted to wear face coverings in all areas of the premises including classrooms if they wish to wear them. In secondary settings staff and students should be encouraged to wear face coverings around the premises (including in classrooms). PPE should always be provided where necessary. Read the advice in the joint union checklist.
What is the NEU 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. Read the advice in the joint union checklist on measures to monitor and to improve ventilation. Then, read our new joint advice on ventilation, which has more detailed advice and links.
What about social distancing?
Social distancing measures that limit interaction and reduce the risk of virus transmission without causing disruption to ordinary activities should continue to be maintained as far as possible. Students and staff should be regularly reminded that maintaining social distancing reduces the risk of transmission. Arrangements such as one-way systems that minimise the extent of contact and mixing during circulation around the premises should be maintained.
What about the size of groups and bubbles?
There is no longer a requirement for schools to operate bubbles. However, limiting groups’ contact with others may sometimes be deemed necessary as a protective measure. The DfE has been clear that schools and colleges can choose to apply safety measures they think necessary to reduce transmission of the virus.
What about other safety measures within the classroom?
Each school and each classroom are different. Read the advice in the NEU’s joint union checklist and then consider the issues and decide whether you think matters are safe. If not, seek support.
What about arrival, departure and movement around the school?
Although social distancing rules no longer apply, schools may want to monitor and control movement all around the school, including via measures for physical separation on arrival and departure, staggered start and finish times, and staggered lunch and other breaks. The joint union checklist addresses these issues.
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.
What about transition days, open days etc?
Any events need to be the subject of thorough risk assessments, which ensure that safety measures are maintained. NEU advice is that generally leaders should focus on on-line alternatives where possible. Breaking down attendance into smaller groups might facilitate some kind of on-site visit for attendees; but such arrangements should not impose increased working time on staff.
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.
This NEU advice applies also to pregnant women in the third trimester of pregnancy, including those who have been vaccinated.
Pregnant women are considered clinically vulnerable, and the Government advice specifically states that all pregnant women are entitled to an individual risk assessment in relation to work. Anyone working from home should continue to be paid on their usual terms.
The NEU advice considers other groups of people as well. If you have a condition, not mentioned in the 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 situation.
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 about ensuring safety when working at home?
See the advice 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.
I understand that schools no longer have to do contact tracing. How will this work and what is the position regarding isolation for contacts of positive cases and testing for staff and students?
Schools no longer have to identify ‘close contacts’, as the function has been handed to NHS test and trace. NHS test and trace will either be contacting children, or their parents, to identify their ‘close contacts’. The NEU has concerns about how NHS test and trace can identify ‘close contacts’ and then know how to contact them without help from schools.
Under the latest government guidance, NHS test and trace may not trace close contacts that have taken place in schools. A new concept of ‘close prolonged contact’ is being introduced which means NHS test and trace will generally not trace close contacts where that contact takes place in an educational setting, i.e. schools and colleges. “Contacts in an educational setting will be traced if the positive case specifically identified an individual as having close, prolonged contact which will normally have occurred in a social setting e.g. sleepovers.”
Schools may be contacted but only if deemed necessary, by local health protection teams in response to a local outbreak.
The Government states that individuals, whether staff or students, are no longer required to self-isolate if they live in the same household as someone with Covid-19, or are a close contact of someone with Covid-19, and any of the following apply:
- they are fully vaccinated;
- they are below the age of 18 years and 6 months;
- they have taken part in or are currently part of an approved Covid-19 vaccine trial;
- they are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons (see note below).
Instead, they will be contacted by NHS test and trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test.
The NEU argues that staff who are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons should be able to self-isolate and work from home on full pay in the same way as their voluntarily unvaccinated colleagues.
Staff and students will be encouraged to test themselves twice weekly, to be reviewed at the at the end of September.
What advice does the NEU offer on vaccination for staff?
See NEU detailed advice on vaccination. The NEU strongly urges all members who have not yet been vaccinated to accept the offer. This will not only protect individuals, but it will also help protect colleagues, pupils and whole communities, including those who for medical reasons are genuinely unable to receive the vaccine.
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 should schools and colleges tell parents and staff in the event of a confirmed or suspected case of infection?
Read this advice for full guidance in this area, including data protection issues.
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. Most sick pay schemes provide that sickness 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 advises members who have concerns about safety at the workplace to use the NEU escalation guidance to raise concerns and to seek NEU support locally.
What is NEU advice on visiting students in their homes?
As a general principle, the number of home visits should be minimised. They should only take place when it has been determined, following discussion and a risk assessment, that their purpose cannot be achieved through, for example, a phone call or an online meeting. Home visits should not be undertaken to maintain contact with any students absent from school due to issues around Covid-19.
Before the visit takes place
- A further risk assessment should be undertaken to determine safety measures for the visit. Even if the risk assessment determines that PPE is not required, staff should be advised to wear a face covering.
- Liaison should take place with the student and their family to seek agreement to maintain social distancing during the visit. If the family/student is deemed likely to not comply, the visit should not go ahead.
- The health status of the household should be checked on the day of the visit to establish if anyone has confirmed Covid-19, or symptoms. If so, then the visit should not go ahead.
- The student and, where appropriate, household members should be encouraged to wear face coverings during the visit and to undertake twice-weekly testing.
During the visit
- On arrival, hands should be sanitised.
- Where appropriate ask for windows and doors to be kept open.
- Keep 2 metres away from the student where possible.
- If you begin to feel unsafe/uncomfortable because of the behaviour of anyone in the household, the visit should be ended immediately.
What should happen when a pupil or member of staff develops covid-19 symptoms?
Nobody should come to school if they have symptoms, have had a positive test result or there are other reasons requiring them to stay at home due to the risk of them passing on COVID-19 (for example, they are required to quarantine).
If anyone develops COVID-19 symptoms, during the day they should be sent home, avoiding the use of public transport if possible, and get a free PCR test to check if you have coronavirus.
Workload and working entitlements in work or at home
How can we manage workload sustainably and avoid excessive workload?
Despite virtually all restrictions been lifted, these are still not normal times for those working in education. Running a Covid-safe 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, 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 unless significant concerns have been raised. All employers should continue to properly reflect the impact of coronavirus in discussions on objectives for 2021/22 and in mid-year reviews.
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 may 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. See also the NEU’s Supporting members with long covid and this return to work guide for recovering workers produced by SOM (Supporting Occupational Health and Wellbeing Professionals) which has input from the TUC, ACAS and Mind.
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.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will end on 30 September 2021. The scheme is now flexible, in that employees can work some of their “normal” hours while furloughed for the remainder, but employers are required to pay employer National Insurance and pension contributions and from 1 July a proportion of the payment to staff. For furloughs starting on or after 1 May 2021, employees must have been employed on 2 March 2021.