The Department for Education has finally updated its main Covid guidance document to include details of how leaders should handle this year’s partial school closures.
Many of the instructions on how to keep schools Covid-secure are similar to or the same as they were before, but there are some other important instructions.
Here’s what we learned.
1. ‘No limit’ on key worker child numbers
Under the rules of the current lockdown, vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers can continue to attend school.
The guidance acknowledges that every school “will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend”, and stresses that it is “important that on-site provision is provided for these pupils”.
There is also “no limit to numbers of these pupils who may attend and schools should not limit attendance of these groups”.
However, parents and carers who are critical workers “should keep their children at home if they can”.
The definition of vulnerable children and young people “includes children who have a social worker, an education, health and care plan (EHCP) or who may be vulnerable for another reason at local discretion”, the DfE said.
The DfE has also said that some pupils who have difficulty engaging in remote education “may be considered to be vulnerable children, and therefore eligible to attend provision in person”. This was added to the criteria for vulnerable children in September, however has led to some schools saying much more children are attending than in the March lockdown.
The DfE guidance states admitting pupils because of remote education concerns is a decision “based on local discretion and the needs of the child and their family, as well as a wide range of other factors”.
2. New remote learning expectations
As we reported yesterday, the DfE is increasing its expectations of the amount of remote education schools need to provide during the lockdown.
Today’s guidance confirms those changes, and also gives further details on how parents can complain about a lack of provision.
For Key Stage 1, three hours of remote education must be provided. The DfE said provision will include “both recorded or live direct teaching time, and time for pupils to complete tasks and assignments independently”.
Key stage 2 pupils should be provided with four hours remote education a day while this increases to five hours for both Key Stage 3 and 4.
Previous guidance stated that primary schools should set work totalling around three hours a day, and four hours at secondary.
3. Face coverings in secondary communal spaces
Mandatory face coverings in the communal areas of settings where pupils in year 7 and above are educated came into force in November, and today’s guidance confirms it will remain in place throughout this lockdown.
In these schools, face coverings “should be worn by adults and pupils when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing cannot easily be maintained”.
There is no mention of face coverings in classrooms, despite a government official saying last week that this was being considered.
4. Follow-up on vulnerable pupil absences
The DfE told heads earlier this week that they should “encourage” vulnerable children to attend school, but that they should approve absences if parents or carers want to keep them at home.
If vulnerable pupils do not attend, schools should work with local authorities and, where applicable, social workers, to “follow up with the parent or carer to explore the reason for absence”.
Schools should also work with partners “to encourage the child or young person to attend educational provision, particularly where the social worker agrees that the child or young person’s attendance would be appropriate”, the DfE guidance said.
Where schools do grant a leave of absence to a vulnerable child, they “should still speak to parents and carers, and social workers (where applicable) to explore the reasons for this and any concerns raised”.
Where individuals who are self-isolating are within our definition of vulnerable, it is “important that schools put systems in place to keep in contact with them”.
5. Work with other schools if you’re forced to close
Schools that need to put a “temporary stop” on on-site provision due to public health advice should inform their local authority and “discuss alternative arrangements for vulnerable children and young people and work towards welcoming back pupils as soon as possible, where feasible to do so”.
Schools are also “encouraged to work collaboratively with other schools and education providers and other local partners (including the local authority, social workers, police, youth services, key workers etc.) to maximise opportunities for face-to-face provision for vulnerable children”.
6. Clarification on AP and special schools
There was confusion earlier this week when the DfE tweeted that AP schools would remain fully open, but then told heads in an email that they would only be open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
Today’s guidance clarifies that AP schools “should remain open to vulnerable children and young people and children of critical works”, but recognises “that the characteristics of the cohorts in alternative provision will mean these settings continue to offer face to face provision for all pupils, where appropriate”.
The document states that special schools “should continue to welcome and encourage pupils to attend full-time where the parent/carer wishes for their child to be able to attend”.
However, it acknowledges that on occasion, special schools “may encounter circumstances where they cannot provide their usual interventions and provision at adequate staffing ratios, or with staff with vital specialist training”.
In such circumstances schools “should seek to resume as close as possible to the child of young person’s specified provision as soon as possible”.
Pupil level risk assessments, which were used last spring, “should not be used to filter children and young people in or out of attendance, but could be helpful to prioritise the provision a child or young person can get if full time provision for all is not possible”.
7. Schools ‘not currently high risk settings’
This is in line with the government’s wider guidance to workers in all sectors. The DfE says school leaders are “best placed to determine the workforce that is required in school, taking into account the updated guidance for those staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable”.
However, the DfE’s expectation “is that those staff not attending school will work from home where possible”.
The DfE said that where schools implement the system of controls outlined in the guidance, in line with their own workplace risk assessment, the measures will “create an inherently safer environment for children and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced”.
“As a result, on current evidence, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care advise that schools are not currently considered high risk settings when compared to other workplace environments.”
8. New advice for clinically vulnerable staff
According to the DfE, clinically extremely vulnerable school staff are “advised that they should not attend the workplace”. These individuals will be identified “through a letter from the NHS or a specialist doctor”.
Clinically vulnerable staff “can continue to attend school where it is not possible to work from home”, but should follow sector-specific measures to “minimise the risks of transmission”.
Pregnant staff are considered clinically vulnerable, but if they cannot work from home, they and their employers should follow the government’s advice for pregnant employees.
“We recommend that schools follow the same principles for pregnant pupils, in line with their wider health and safety obligations,” the DfE said.
9. No mention of another exceptional costs fund
Today’s guidance confirms schools will continue to receive their core funding allocations.
This will happen “regardless of any periods of partial or complete closure and will ensure schools can continue to pay staff and meet other regular financial commitments”.
The guidance also refers to last year’s exceptional cost fund, which covered the period between March and July 2020, and states that schools that made claims in the second window “will receive their funding in February”.
However, the guidance makes no reference to any plans to reintroduce the fund for this academic year.
10. Uniform changes up to schools
The DfE has said that some schools “may feel it is appropriate to relax their uniform policy whilst only certain categories of pupils are attending”.
“This is a decision for school leaders,” the guidance states.