As the pandemic continues into the autumn term and rates of Covid-19 infection in schools, colleges and the wider community remain high, the NEU believes that effective safety measures continue to be important in order to reduce the extent to which coronavirus is spread in schools and in the wider community and to reduce the extent to which staff and students are absent or suffer its ill-effects, including those of ‘long Covid’.

We know that in special schools many students are at greater risk of and from Covid-19 infection, and staff are regularly less able to socially distance as they carry out personal care for students and work closely on a 1:1 basis.  For this reason, we advise that where possible mitigations in place from last term including wearing face coverings, ventilating classrooms, hand sanitising and hand washing continue in order to maintain the safety of staff, students and the wider community.

The joint unions checklist for schools/colleges provides up to date information about safety measures and the questions that workplace reps should be discussing with school leaders.

Further advice on safety measures for staff at greater risk is here.

My head says that pupils no longer need to wear face coverings in my secondary special school. Is this right?

The Department for Education (DfE) advice for special schools is that “face coverings are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms, or in communal areas”. They do, however, recommend that they are worn in enclosed spaces. 

The NEU advises that:

  •  In special schools and AP, where staff often work closely on a 1:1 basis with students, continuing to wear face coverings is important to avoiding the further spread of coronavirus over the autumn term amongst both staff and students. Staff should be both permitted and encouraged to wear face coverings.
  • Although some pupils in special schools will qualify for an exemption from wearing a mask, the NEU advises that where possible, and in discussion with parent/carers, SEND pupils should be encouraged to wear masks or face coverings when in school as much as possible. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to SEND pupils’ ability and willingness to wear a mask, so schools should not rule this out with a blanket policy against their wearing.
  • Consideration should also be urgently given to the case for continuing to require staff and students to wear face coverings around the premises.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE), including FFP2 or FFP3 grade masks, if appropriate, should be provided for staff administering first aid, medical care or personal care activities where social distancing cannot be maintained, for example in some special schools and nurseries.

Those who rely on visual signals for communication, or work with those who communicate in this way, are exempt from wearing face coverings/masks under DfE guidance. The NEU advice is that clear masks should be worn by staff working with hearing impaired pupils and/or colleagues. Visors are not suitable as they do not protect against aerosol transmission.

Should students continue to wear masks on home to school transport?

Yes they should.  DfE advice is that “children and young people aged 11 and over should wear a face covering when travelling on dedicated transport to secondary school or college”. They also recommend updating risk assessments for student travel arrangements and the NEU endorses this.

NEU advice is that drivers and assistants should continue to wear face coverings when travelling with students in the confined space of a vehicle despite the fact that the DfE advice is that this is no longer necessary.

I support students with personal care during the school day – should I continue to use the higher grade PPE?

The DfE advice is that if a student already has routine care needs that involve the use of PPE then the same PPE should continue to be used. Additional PPE should be used when performing aerosol generating procedures (AEGs). 

The NEU advice remains that when carrying out personal care with students, staff should wear higher grade PPE (FFP2 or FFP3 grade masks) and be allocated a room that is well-ventilated.  Adequate time should also be allowed for putting on and removing the additional PPE, enhanced hand washing etc.

What are the expectations for teaching pupils who are isolating for medical reasons, which creates an increased workload when also teaching the rest of the class?

The DfE advice is that education settings should be able to offer students who are isolating, because they are complying with clinical or public health advice, ‘access to high quality remote education’. 

If you are experiencing an increased workload because in special schools the curriculum for each child may be quite bespoke you should talk to your workplace NEU rep as it may also be an issue being experienced by other staff.  They can talk to the SLT on behalf of all members about managing expectations, using resources effectively, and providing staff with as much planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time as possible.

To meet these expectations, teachers will need a significant amount of time to plan content that can be used in classrooms and remotely, and to find or record explanations of new concepts. While some of this time can be found by reprioritising and repurposing activities, it is unlikely to provide enough to plan a programme that is of equivalent length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school, ideally including daily contact with teachers.

Without a significant increase in numbers of teachers, the NEU does not believe that these expectations can be fully met. Individual teachers cannot be expected to do two jobs (teach in class and remotely) and find time to plan for both. School leaders and teachers will need to work together to agree what is reasonable and manageable, in order to maintain pupil learning during this period.”

Further information about remote and blended learning and workload can be found here.

Should clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) staff who are at greater risk be working in school?

While the virus is still spreading through communities, the joint union position is that consideration should continue to be given  to permitting the staff at greatest risk to work from home when requested. 

Some staff at greater risk may be unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and those who are at greater risk will be concerned that even if fully vaccinated, vaccines are less effective against the delta variant, with no vaccine offering 100 per cent protection. The joint unions' advice therefore is that CEV staff who, following an individual risk assessment or on medical advice, need to work from home should be supported by their employer to do so.  We recognise for some staff this may mean a mutually agreed temporary redeployment into a role than can be undertaken from home.

If CEV staff who are at greatest risk from Covid-19 want to work on site, the school or college should conduct an individual risk assessment and consider additional mitigation measures that can be put in place to ensure their safety before a return to work. The NEU believes that individual risk assessments should also be offered to clinically vulnerable and other higher risk staff eg staff aged 60 and above, including consideration of the additional safety measures available to CEV staff. Pregnant women in their third trimester should also be advised  to work from home.

  • Individual Covid-19 risk assessments should be carried out (and reviewed where previously carried out) for the staff at greatest risk and for staff concerned about vulnerable household members.
  • Individual risk assessments should be offered to staff with characteristics that put them at higher risk, such as age, ethnicity, sex and disability.
  • Pregnant women in their third trimester should be permitted to work at home.
  • Temporary changes in responsibilities should be agreed as appropriate to facilitate home working.
  • Appropriate PPE should be provided for those staff at significant risk.

I am a teaching assistant who works 1:1 with a SEND student.  How can I socially distance? Should I be wearing a face covering during lessons?

The NEU asks all special schools to conduct updated individual risk assessments for support staff working 1:1 with SEND students. This should include consideration of additional PPE including masks and gloves following further risk assessment of the children they are working closely with eg students who may be less able to socially distance, may spit etc.  It should also include an updated risk assessment regarding protocols around positive handling/restraint of pupils and social distancing.

The NEU advice on face coverings set out earlier applies to all staff.

What do we do if pupils in special schools don’t agree to testing?

The DfE guidance on rapid asymptomatic testing in specialist settings has been updated to include information about testing pupils in the autumn term. It says testing for staff and pupils is voluntary and that “if assisted swabbing is required, the willingness and feasibility to swab should be reviewed and risk assessed every time before swabbing.”

Given the likelihood that fewer secondary age pupils in special schools will consent to, or medically be able to, take the test (for example, due to gag reflex) it is essential that all other safety measures, including mask wearing, bubbles, cleaning, etc. remain in place in these settings and that risk assessments include this.

Staff and students with a positive lateral flow test should self-isolate in line with the Government stay at home guidance at that time and will need to get a PCR test to confirm the result.

Should the school still be running an enhanced cleaning schedule in the autumn term?

The DfE advice says that increased frequency of cleaning of general room surfaces reduces the presence of the virus and risk of contact.  For this reason, the NEU advises schools to continue the additional cleaning put in place last term but recognises that this generates additional costs: 

  • Enhanced cleaning regimes should be maintained throughout the premises, including employing additional cleaning staff and payment for extra workload or hours worked to support cleaning and estates staff.
  • Toilets should be cleaned regularly and closed bins for tissue disposal should be provided across the site.
  • Contractors should be required to comply with this checklist and ensure full pay for all covid-related absences.
  • Adequate arrangements for enhanced hand washing should be maintained.

In special schools in particular consideration will still need to be made this term about the arrangements for the cleaning of shared items, such as therapy or support aids, shared sensory toys, musical instruments etc, which cannot be left unused for 72 hours between use. If teachers or support staff are expected to clean the items then time should be allowed for this  eg relief from other duties etc.

I am concerned about ventilation in my school: some areas do not have opening windows and some pupils would be at greater risk if it is too cold. What can we do?

For students in special schools for whom too cold a room would be detrimental to their health, individual risk assessments must be undertaken in discussion with parents/carers. This should not, however, result in unacceptable conditions for staff or other students.

The joint unions checklist advises that:

  • Ventilation arrangements should be reviewed to ensure maximum ventilation of all spaces.
  • CO2 monitors should be made available to enable regular monitoring. Additional measures and equipment should be introduced to aid and improve ventilation where necessary. Any areas identified as having unsafe levels of ventilation should not be used. Rooms with poor ventilation which cannot be improved in other ways should be fitted with HEPA filters (see ventilation guidance here).

To balance the need for increased ventilation while maintaining a comfortable temperature, consider:

  • opening high level windows in colder weather, in preference to low level, to reduce draughts.
  • increasing ventilation while spaces are unoccupied (for example, between classes, during break and lunch and when a room is unused).
  • providing flexibility to allow additional, suitable indoor clothing – for more information see the advice on school uniform in the Schools coronavirus (Covid- 19) operational guidance
  • rearranging furniture where possible to avoid direct draughts.

Heating should be used as necessary to ensure comfort levels are maintained, particularly in occupied spaces.

The NEU view is that in order to help with the balance between ventilation and warmth, uniform and dress codes should continue to be relaxed to allow staff and students to dress appropriately. In addition, schools and colleges should, where necessary, have the heating turned up higher and for longer, starting earlier in the morning, to keep the temperature comfortable throughout the working day.

General workplace guidance on ventilation is available from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The NEU advice draws upon the HSE advice as well as guidance from the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA) and the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Covid-19 ventilation guidance, Emerging from Lockdown.

I am a specialist/peripatetic teacher – should I still be working with pupils in different schools each week, or even on the same day?

The DfE advice says that specialist teachers and peripatetic staff should continue to provide ‘reasonable interventions’ where necessary, including moving between settings. We understand the importance of students accessing specialist interventions and therapies and want to support schools/colleges to enable specialist professionals to work with students safely.

  • The NEU has  asked schools to ensure safety procedures and risk assessments reflect the needs of peripatetic staff. The risk assessment process should consider all the areas identified in DfE Schools COVID-19 operational guidance - GOV.UK and joint union advice (see below), fully evaluate the risk of harm, including local prevalence, and identify the measures to apply in each area.

The NEU is, however, concerned about staff safety when moving between settings or bubbles within the same setting. Each school/setting should have an updated risk assessment in place for visiting specialists and peripatetic staff. You should make sure the following are in place:

  • The room/area you are working in should be well ventilated.
  • A testing plan should be in place for visiting staff – when and how will you access testing?
  • Arrangements should be made to continue on-line/remotely where possible, particularly where pupils you are working with are CEV (DfE advises that CEV pupils should remain at home).

DfE advice is clear that where a young person with an EHC plan is isolating for medical reasons the provisions of the EHC plan should continue to be delivered either at the young person’s home or via an online platform.  The NEU advice is that in this case specialist staff should insist on a risk assessment being carried out in relation to where and how the EHC provision is delivered.

I have just become the NEU rep in my school and am not sure how to approach the head teacher with the ideas and concerns of members?

You can find out more about being a workplace rep during coronavirus here.

Here are some tips on how to approach your head teacher with members' ideas, suggestions and concerns.

  • Stage 1: Speak with members and ask about priority concerns and what they want to be raised in discussions and planning with the head.
  • Stage 2: Plan and meet as an NEU workplace group (virtually if necessary) to discuss concerns.
  • Stage 3: Arrange a meeting with your head and/or senior leadership team (SLT) to raise concerns.
  • Stage 4: Report back the response from leadership and discuss with members next steps, including escalation and further support.
  • Stage 5: Ask for extra support from your NEU branch and seek further advice.

Further advice

Coronavirus: face masks and PPE in schools and colleges

Ten points on circumstances where medical masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) may be appropriate.