My head says that pupils should not wear masks in my secondary special school. Is this right?

The Department for Education (DfE) advice for schools is that face coverings or masks should be worn in secondary schools where social distancing cannot be maintained, including in classrooms. This also applies to special school pupils of secondary school age.

The likelihood that distancing will be more difficult to maintain in special schools than in mainstream schools means this advice on face coverings must be considered even more seriously.

Although some pupils in special schools will qualify for an exemption to wearing a mask in school, 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.

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 clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) staff who are at greater risk be working in school from 8 March?

The DfE advice to schools is that CEV staff are advised not to attend the workplace until at least 31 March, when there will be a further review. It advises that school leaders should discuss ways in which they will support CEV staff to work from home unless they prefer to come into school, in which case they should carry out a risk assessment and discuss how the staff member will be kept safe. Again, challenges in maintaining distancing and other issues should be specifically considered in special schools.

See: Coronavirus: medically vulnerable and higher risk groups

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 home testing for staff, twice-weekly testing of secondary aged pupils, and changes for on-site testing through asymptomatic test sites. 

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.”

Staff in special schools will be provided with testing kits so that they can test themselves twice a week at home.

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.

We have been closing early to allow for additional cleaning. How will we manage with all pupils in school all day?

DfE says that in line with the risk assessment and timetabling of the day, schools should put in place and maintain an enhanced cleaning schedule which should include:

  • more frequent cleaning of rooms or shared areas that are used by different groups
  • frequently touched surfaces being cleaned more often than normal
  • cleaning toilets regularly
  • encouraging pupils and students to wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet
  • if your site allows it, allocating different groups their own toilet blocks
  • PHE has published guidance for cleaning non-healthcare settings . This contains advice on the general cleaning required, in addition to the existing advice on cleaning when there is a suspected case.

NEU advice is that cleaning should be considered as part of the school risk assessment and that NEU reps should discuss this with school leaders. 

  • Ask how cleaning will be carried out to the required standard (set out above) with all pupils in school all day? 
  • Will the school be employing additional cleaning staff?
  • If the required level of cleaning cannot be maintained, is the school considering measures such as a shorter school day, the continuation of rotas or longer phased return for pupils?

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?

The NEU has published detailed advice on ventilation and temperature.

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 latest DfE guidance suggests a variety of measures for ventilation, including:

  • Mechanical ventilation systems – these should be adjusted to increase the ventilation rate, wherever possible, and checked to confirm normal operation meets current guidance and that only fresh outside air is circulated. If possible, systems should be adjusted to full fresh air or, if not, systems should be operated as normal, as long as they are within a single room and supplemented by an outdoor air supply.
  • Natural ventilation – 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 can also assist with creating a throughput of air.
  • Natural ventilation – if necessary external opening doors may also be used (as long as they are not fire doors and where safe to do so).

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 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 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.

The NEU has written to all schools asking them to ensure procedures reflect the needs of peripatetic staff. The NEU is, however, concerned about staff safety when moving between settings or bubbles within the same setting. Each school/setting should have a 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).

My head teacher doesn’t want to reduce pupil numbers in our school because they are worried about losing funding. Is this likely to happen?

The NEU thinks that the number of students coming into school needs to be assessed in terms of safety and the need to reduce transmission of coronavirus, not on funding considerations. The latest DfE guidance says: “Funding should be maintained and services should not be reduced because some or all children and young people are not in attendance (because of sickness or self-isolation).”

The NEU is aware that there are some specific funding concerns emerging for PRUs and APs because schools and local authorities (LAs) are not referring students at the normal rate. The union is raising these issues with the DfE.

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.