Special schools in lockdown

Should every pupil with a EHC (Education, Health and Care) plan in a special school come into school?

No, not every pupil will be able to come in. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for special schools but it is important to reduce community transmission so the number of pupils attending special schools must be reduced, as with mainstream schools.  

The NEU thinks that head teachers in special schools will need to work with families to establish which students can be safe at home. It is important to get the numbers coming into special schools as low as possible during the lockdown. In many special schools during the last lockdown, rotas were arranged for pupils coming into school to offset the mental health pressures of being at home and allow students to access therapies.  

The NEU is advising special schools to use rotas and part-time, in-school provision during the lockdown to keep numbers of students in school lower and to offer additional and timely face-to-face support to students and families who need it most.

Is every student in a special school with an EHC plan counted as 'vulnerable'?

The NEU is advising that not all pupils with an EHC plan need to be educated in school, given the urgent need to break the transmission of Covid-19.  Despite the DfE advice, which defines every student with an EHC plan as vulnerable, we are advising that it will not be possible for every pupil with an EHC plan to attend their special school. Where the special school has links to regular supply teachers, or can recruit supply teachers with the relevant specialist skills, we are advising that special schools use supply teachers to increase teacher numbers and reduce ratios and class sizes.

The NEU advises that special schools should update individual student risk assessments in discussion with classroom staff and the family to decide whether a student should come into school but that the numbers of students attending need to be reduced across the school.    

Vulnerable students will encompass students who are medically vulnerable and those who are socially vulnerable or identified as children in need, with a social worker involved with the family.  Pupils who are medically at greater risk from catching and being ill from Covid-19 should be at home accessing remote learning. Pupils where families will really struggle to cope with the student at home should be given priority to attend, where possible, or where there are significant concerns for the student's mental health or wellbeing; or safeguarding concerns. This is a balancing act and the head teacher should work closely with the staff in the school to establish appropriate numbers of students, with safe and appropriate staffing levels.

The NEU is advising special schools to use rotas and part-time, in-school provision during the lockdown to keep numbers of students in school lower and to offer additional and timely face-to-face support to students and families who need it most.

How should special schools approach prioritising who should attend? 

Special schools should only be open for children of critical workers (where neither parent is able to work from home), those who are at a safeguarding risk and pupils for whom, after an individual risk assessment, the school deem it more beneficial to be in school for at least some of the time. This would include assessment of mental health considerations, the need for access to therapies, and the student's individual needs, for example, if the student lives in an environment with little space and where regular movement is crucial for the child or young person.

It is important to keep student numbers in school as low as possible to reduce transmission of Covid-19.

Where the special school has links to regular supply teachers, or can recruit supply teachers with the relevant specialist skills, we are advising that special schools use supply teachers to increase the teacher numbers and reduce ratios and class sizes.
The NEU is advising special schools to use rotas and part-time, in-school provision during the lockdown to keep numbers of students in school lower and to offer additional and timely face-to-face support to students and families who need it most.

What about staff? 

Only the special school staff needed to support pupils in school should be on site and all others should work from home. In the last lockdown, many special schools operated rotas for both students and staff and this should be used again this time.

Staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) in a special school should have the same protections as those in other schools and be enabled to work from home. All staff working in special schools should request an updated risk assessment for the spring term 2021. These are minimum standards for keeping everyone safe and ensuring reasonable working conditions.

 If you do not feel safe in your workplace you should discuss your concerns with local officer who can advise you on the next steps.

PRU under lockdown

Should every student in a pupil referral unit (PRU) come into school?

Although most students in PRUs and alternative provision have been defined as 'vulnerable' in the DfE January 2021 advice, the NEU believes that schools need to work with families to establish whether students need to be in school all week, whether some could attend using a rota or part-time system or some could learn from home. 

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for alternative provision and the NEU recognises the complex needs of these students. However, it is important to reduce community transmission and protect staff and student health and so the NEU is advising that the numbers attending PRUs must be reduced, as with mainstream schools. 

The NEU advises that PRUs should update individual student risk assessments in discussion with staff and parents/carers to decide whether a student should come into school. We advise that the numbers attending need to be reduced overall across the school, using rotas and part-time provision.

Our head teacher is saying that the DfE advice says all pupils in PRUs are vulnerable?

Students who are medically at greater risk from catching and being ill from Covid-19 should be at home, accessing remote learning, with pastoral support put in place. Even if all students have an EHC plan, and/or are vulnerable, the NEU is advising that not all can attend as usual. 

Students where parents/carers will really struggle to cope should be given priority or where there are significant concerns for the student's mental health or wellbeing; or safeguarding concerns. We recognise that this is a very difficult balancing act and the head teacher should work closely with staff to establish safe numbers of students, with appropriate staffing levels. The NEU believes that your right to work in a safe work environment must not be compromised.  

We think head teachers need to interpret the DfE January advice in light of their health and safety obligations. We fully recognise the complexity around bringing in appropriately qualified supply teachers to create smaller groups. However, where a PRU or alternative provision setting has links to regular supply teachers, or can recruit supply teachers with the relevant specialist skills, we are advising that heads should employ additional staff to increase teacher numbers and reduce ratios and class sizes.

The NEU is advising PRUs and alternative provision settings to use rotas and part-time in-school provision, where possible, to reduce numbers of students in school and to offer elements of face-to-face support and respite for parents/carers who need it the most.

I do not feel safe in my PRU because so many students are still attending this spring term. What are my options? 

Only the staff needed to support the students in school should be on site, and all others should be enabled to work from home. The NEU is advising that not all students can attend as usual, irrespective of the DfE January advice and we are urgently asking the Government to change it. 

Staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) in a PRU should have the same protections as those in other schools and be enabled to work from home.  All staff working in PRUs should request an updated risk assessment for the spring term 2021. Here is a link to our summary of measures https://neu.org.uk/advice/coronavirus-dos-and-donts

If you think matters are not safe in your setting, contact your NEU rep, hold a virtual meeting to discuss your concerns and make representations to your head teacher. If you do not have a school rep, contact the NEU locally for support and advice.

Coronavirus SEND FAQs

  • Can I wear a mask/face covering in school when I am working closely with a SEND child?

    The NEU’s position (in line with HSE advice) is that any member of staff should be permitted to wear a mask or face covering should they wish to do so.  In this instance, this may be because of concerns about working closer than the recommended safe distancing with a child supporting their learning due to special educational needs or disability.

    Use the questions in the joint union checklist and the special school checklist supplement to discuss with your school leaders the safest way of working with SEND pupils.

    More broadly, the latest DfE advice states that schools and colleges have the discretion to require the use of face coverings in indoor areas where social distancing cannot be maintained, and it is seen as the right thing to do. In areas of national intervention, however, where transmission rates are high, the guidance states that in schools/colleges where students in Year 7 and above are educated, face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils when moving around indoors, including in corridors and communal areas.

    The NEU believes that this position is unclear and that the approach taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland should be adopted ie that face coverings should be worn in communal areas in all schools/colleges (not just those in areas where transmission rates are high) and that this should not be a matter of individual discretion for head teachers.

  • Some of the SEND students I work with in mainstream will find it difficult to adapt to new routines in September. Can they have a more phased return to school?

    The DfE advice for both special and mainstream schools (Annex B of the DfE Guidance for schools) emphasises the Government view that all children should be back at school in September.  It does, however, say that where students have challenging behaviours or social/emotional challenges arising as a response to lockdown a phased return may be appropriate. 

    The NEU believes that where, in discussion with parents/carers, a phased approach is seen to be in the best interests of a child then it should be used by schools; and the child and their family should receive appropriate support throughout the phased return period from the school SENCO and/or key worker.  We would expect a blended learning approach to be used, if appropriate, in these cases.

  • Some of our pupils need personal care (changing etc). What can staff do to keep safe when doing this?

    Whenever intimate personal care is provided staff must wear gloves and aprons; this should be considered a priority for personal protective equipment.  Whether staff wear facemasks for undertaking personal care should be considered in individual risk assessment and discussion with the staff team.  Some special schools, who are screening pupils by taking their temperature on arrival consider, in conjunction with school nurses, wearing masks to be unnecessary.  However, advice from medical professionals in your school may differ.  It is important that this is negotiated with staff providing personal care so that all staff remain safe.

  • Most of the children in our school use dedicated school transport. How can we make sure they are safe?

    Local authorities and schools should be working together to make arrangements for the safe use of dedicated school transport including carrying out risk assessments for different pupils and journeys as well as for drivers and escorts.  Protocols for social distancing and agreed use of face coverings should be discussed as well as cleaning arrangements for vehicles.

    The NEU joint checklist for schools includes questions to ask about safety on dedicated school transport.

  • I am an educational psychologist. How can myself and others, such as specialist teachers, keep safe when we are moving between schools?

    The DfE advice states that peripatetic staff and specialist teachers can move between schools.  The NEU recommends that you ask to see the safety precautions that each school has in place before attending.  Where possible you may be able to continue some work using remote sources, particularly where medically vulnerable children continue their learning from home.

    The NEU special school checklist and supply teachers checklist provide advice on the questions to ask regarding safety when moving between schools as a core element of your role.