Covid advice for school and early years workers

This page was last updated on 15 April at 15.45

Some of the rules on what you can and cannot changed today (12 April). However, many restrictions remain in place.

  • You must not socialise indoors with anyone you do not live with, unless you have formed a support bubble with them, or another exemption applies.
  • You should continue to work from home if you can and minimise the number of journeys you make where possible.
  • Social distancing is still very important. You should stay 2 metres apart from anyone who is not in your household or support bubble where possible, or 1 metre with extra precautions in place (such as wearing face coverings) if you cannot stay 2 metres apart.
  • You must wear a face covering in many indoor settings, such as shops and places of worship, and on public transport, unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse.

Advice for 8 March full reopening

After the tireless efforts of UNISON branches, reps and members, the government finally closed most schools to all except vulnerable and key workers’ children from 5 January. This decision helped to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control and ensure the safety of staff, pupils and our communities.

Following the 2-month lockdown, all schools and early years settings fully reopened to all children from Monday 8 March.

In a noticeable change in policy the DfE constructively engaged with UNISON and other unions before the full reopening on 8 March. We believe this improved dialogue between government and unions helped achieve a largely successful full reopening, and the data so far shows that Covid rates have flattened but are not increasing.

UNISON’s Safer Schools Plan

UNISON outlined several key measures below that we believe schools and the DfE should be implementing to make sure the full reopening of schools remains as safe as possible.

Download UNISON’s Safer Schools Plan

In summary:

  1. Allow schools to use a rota system/blended learning.
  2. Split classes into smaller groups to keep bubble sizes as small as possible.
  3. Keep staff and pupils within one bubble (except for emergencies) to reduce risk of cross transmission and wider closures.
  4. Subject to a risk assessment, provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including medical grade masks, 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.
  5. Staff and pupils in secondary schools should wear face coverings in all areas of the school, including classrooms. There should be an urgent review of the international evidence for face coverings for pupils in primary schools.
  6. Review the quality of face coverings and recommendations.
  7. Mass testing can be used as an additional tool, alongside the full maintenance of all other preventative measures.
  8. The DfE should ask the government to prioritise vaccinating school staff.
  9. Provide additional national guidance on ventilation in schools and support local reviews of ventilation in all schools prior to wider re-opening. This guidance should include advice on minimum safe temperatures for classrooms. Classrooms and other school areas with unsafe ventilation should not be used.
  10. Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) and clinically vulnerable (CV) staff should continue to work from home on full pay until risk from the virus has significantly reduced.
  11. The DfE should issue urgent guidance requiring that all outsourced staff in schools, such as catering and cleaning staff, must receive full pay when they are required to self-isolate.
  12. School staff should not be expected to take on tasks that are beyond their job description or that they are not fully trained and paid for.
  13. UNISON fully supports catch-up programmes, but they must be properly resourced by government. Catch-up programmes should not result in additional workload pressures on already overworked school staff.
  14. Apply public transport rules on social distancing and face coverings to all school transport.
  15. Provide additional funding to cover any additional costs incurred by schools to implement these measures.

Latest government guidance for schools from 8 March

The Department for Education has published new guidance for schools on how they should be operating.

The guidance states that schools should:

  • have reviewed, and where necessary, updated risk assessments
  • be sure to follow the system of controls to minimise the risk of infection, including a plan for asymptomatic testing.
  • have a contingency plan in place for outbreaks in your school and/or for any changes in local restrictions
  • communicate any changes in processes to parents and staff

Testing

The DfE has said that rapid testing using Lateral Flow Devices (LFD) will support the return to face-to-face education by helping to identify people who are infectious but do not have any coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms.

For secondary school staff and pupils they are moving to a home testing model. Home test kits will be available for all staff. Once pupils have been tested 3 times at school, they will be provided with home test kits for regular testing.

Staff in primary schools will continue to test with LFDs twice a week at home, as per existing guidance on testing for staff in primary schools and nurseries. Primary age pupils will not be tested with LFDs. Public Health England have advised there are currently limited public health benefits attached to testing primary pupils with lateral flow devices. Primary age pupils may find the LFD testing process unpleasant and are unable to self-swab.

School support staff are not required to assist with the administering of tests with children, with the exception of people employed as SEN Teaching Assistants.

Testing remains voluntary but strongly encouraged.

Face coverings

Where pupils in year 7 and above are educated (i.e. secondary schools), the DfE recommends that 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. Face coverings do not need to be worn by pupils when outdoors on the premises.

In addition, the DfE now also recommends in secondary schools, that face coverings should be worn in classrooms or during activities unless social distancing can be maintained. This does not apply in situations where wearing a face covering would impact on the ability to take part in exercise or strenuous activity, for example in PE lessons.

In primary schools, the DfE recommends that face coverings should be worn by staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible (for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas). Children in primary schools do not need to wear a face covering.

The DfE are taking this additional precautionary measure for a limited time and these measures will be in place until Easter. The DfE has said that they will keep this under review.

Download the DfE guidance on the wearing of face coverings in schools

Social distancing in the classroom

The DfE states that maintaining a distance between people while inside and reducing the amount of time they are in face-to-face contact lowers the risk of transmission. There is strong public
health advice that staff in secondary schools maintain distance from their pupils, staying at the front of the class, and away from their colleagues where possible. Ideally, adults should maintain 2 metre distance from each other and from children. We know that this is not always possible, particularly when working with pupils with complex needs, or those who need close contact care. The DfE advises that you should continue to provide educational and care support for these pupils as normal, with other increased hygiene protocols in place to minimise the risk of transmission.

Where possible, for example with older pupils with less complex needs who can self regulate their behaviours without distress, they should also be supported to maintain distance and not touch staff and their peers. This will not be possible for the youngest children, and some children and young people with complex needs. It may also not be feasible where space does not allow. Doing this where you can, even some of the time, will help.

When staff and pupils cannot maintain distancing, the risk can be reduced by keeping pupils in the smaller, class-sized groups.
You should make small adaptations to the classroom to support distancing where possible. That should include seating pupils side by side and facing forwards, rather than face-to-face or side on. It might also include moving unnecessary furniture out of the classroom to make more space.

Equipment

The DfE guidance provides the following advice and guidance in relation to the use of equipment in schools:

For individual and very frequently used equipment, such as pencils and pens, staff and pupils should have their own items.

Classroom based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within the bubble. These should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces.

Resources that are shared between classes or bubbles, such as sports, arts, and science equipment should be cleaned frequently. When sharing equipment between different bubbles, you should either:
• clean it before it is moved between bubbles
• allow them to be left unused for a period of 48 hours (72 hours for plastics)

You will need to assess the ability to clean equipment used in the delivery of therapies, for example, physiotherapy equipment or sensory equipment. Determine whether this equipment can withstand cleaning and disinfecting between each use before it is put back into general use.

Where cleaning or disinfecting is not possible or practical, resources will have to be either:
• restricted to one user
• left unused for a period of 48 hours (72 hours for plastics) between use by different individuals.

Outdoor playground equipment should be more frequently cleaned than normal. This also applies to resources used inside and outside by wraparound care and out-of-school settings providers.

Pupils should limit the amount of equipment they bring into school each day, including essentials such as:
• lunch boxes
• hats and coats
• books
• stationery
• mobile phones

Bags are allowed.

Pupils and teachers can take books and other shared resources home, although unnecessary sharing should be avoided. Similar rules on hand cleaning, cleaning of the resources and rotation should apply to these resources.

Other measures advised by the DfE

The DfE guidance also sets out other measures that schools should be considering as part of their risk assessments:

  • Avoid large gathering, such as assemblies with more than one group/bubble
  • Stagger start times, home time, breaks and lunch time
  • Plan how shared staff spaces will be used to allow staff to reduce contact and maintain social distancing
  • Minimise use of shared staff spaces, but ensure staff can still take breaks and use appropriate facilities

Advice for members working in Special Schools

UNISON believes that the safety of staff and pupils working in special schools is paramount.

Download our updated advice for members who work in special schools and colleges (updated ready for 8 March)

Early Years and Nurseries

Although nursery classes have not been formally restricted to vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, many nursery classes have restricted the number of children in classes.

As pupil numbers increase, schools will need to continue to risk assess the impact of increased numbers, particularly around expanding bubbles.

We recognise that social distancing is impossible in early years settings. When CEV and CV staff are no longer at high risk from community transmission and they choose to continue to work at their early years settings, consideration should be given to finding these staff alternative roles where social distancing can be applied.

What else is UNISON calling for in early years?

UNISON believes that all early years settings will need to review their risk assessments as a result of the increased transmissibility of the new variant of COVID-19 and the increased risk to staff. We are calling for a review of the size of so called ‘bubbles’ and restricting further the number of children in these groups. Settings will also need to re-assess the risk to vulnerable staff and allow home working where possible.

We are calling on the government to include early years staff as a priority group for both testing and vaccination along with all other education staff.

Early years staff must have the same rights and protections as other education staff. We know that staff are unable to apply social distancing within early years settings, which already places them at increased risk.

The government also needs to increase the short-term funding support to early years settings to ensure that we have a sustainable sector when demand returns to normal.

FAQs

Schools Reopening

  • Bubbles and social distancing

    What about the size of groups and bubbles?

    The purpose of a bubble is to reduce the risk of infection by minimising contact and mixing, and to allow easier identification of contacts. For this to work, groups need to be as consistent and as small as possible.

    UNISON does not believe that the government guidance is sufficient to protect pupils, staff and their families. We are therefore urging school leaders and headteachers to implement the following measures:

    • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing (see FAQs on early years for our position on maximum bubble sizes in these settings)
    • Staff should remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working

    UNISON is clear that smaller bubbles that are fully contained are best to restrict possible viral transmission.

    What about social distancing in schools?

    The DfE guidance states staff should maintain 2m distancing  from each other and from pupils where possible,  But it goes on to state that the DfE recognises that this not always possible and that you should avoid close face to face contact and minimise time spent within 1 metre of anyone. The guidance states classrooms should be rearranged to maximise social distancing and that there should be no assemblies etc. Further, it states when staff or children cannot maintain distancing, particularly with younger children in primary schools, the risk can be reduced by keeping pupils in smaller groups.

    This does not in UNISON’s view go far enough; UNISON is calling on schools to

    • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing for pupils and staff (see FAQs on early years for our position on maximum bubble sizes in these settings)
    • Ensure staff remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working except in exceptional circumstances

    UNISON and the joint unions have produced a checklist which sets out what employers should demonstrate they have considered in establishing their arrangements for social distancing or minimising contacts and mixing.  Please ensure your school has a copy.

    Your school must review, update and consult you on its risk assessment in light of the increased prevalence of the virus and the new, more contagious variant. Your school must involve local UNISON reps, or if you do not have UNISON reps at your school they must involve the branch. Some schools have done this by setting aside several days for staff consultation and training. Please contact the branch office if you are concerned about the safety measures in your school.

  • Childcare and school workers

    I have childcare responsibilities which will make it difficult for me to arrive at work for the usual start time or to attend as normal. What are my rights?

    The DfE has not issued specific advice to schools about employees whose children are unable to return to school. UNISON continues to raise this with government.

    UNISON’s advice is that you should explain your situation to your employer, and we would expect your employer to be reasonable in accommodating your circumstances. This is in line with the NJC Green Book (guidance which covers the overwhelming majority of schools) which states that employers should be fully supportive of employees with childcare responsibilities and consider flexible working arrangements including working from home; adapting working patterns to care for children or dependants; or taking time off, whether this is special leave, annual leave or flexible working.

    Many UNISON members will be entitled to paid dependant leave due to agreements negotiated with their employer, so please seek a copy of any related policy. Contact the branch office if you are unsure what your rights are.

    In the worst-case scenario, there are legal rights to unpaid leave in some cases.  But we don’t believe this should be necessary and the employer should facilitate your request for flexible working to facilitate your childcare responsibilities.

    Good employers will recognise the benefits of retaining experienced and committed staff and should consider the childcare needs of all staff when planning for the winter term and beyond. If women are disadvantaged because their employer does not agree to reasonable flexible working arrangements to allow them to balance work and childcare, they may be able to claim indirect sex discrimination if reasonable attempts to resolve the matter individually or collectively do not resolve the issue.

  • Cleaning in schools

    What is the government’s guidance on school cleaning?

    The government’s advice on cleaning in a non-health care setting covers educational settings. There is additional advice published by the Department for Education on cleaning the environment, which includes toys and equipment. We expect all our schools in North Yorkshire to follow this guidance as a minimum.

    Who should be cleaning schools?

    Our position is that only those who are employed as cleaners should be cleaning schools. They are the people who are trained and skilled. Of course, in a school setting there will be occasions where other staff are required to clean-up after children or after some activities. They will also be an increased need for surfaces to be wiped-down during the day. However, ‘cleaning’ should only be done by cleaners. This might mean that schools need additional cleaning staff or need to ask cleaning staff to work additional hours. Working additional hours will, in most cases, be voluntary and should be paid.

    What about staffing levels amongst cleaners and facilities staff?

    Where there is a reduced need for cleaners, options to stay at home should be shared out on a rota basis. In addition schools may work with cleaners to arrange shifts for times of the day when there are fewer people in school. Changes to working patterns should always be through mutual agreement.

    What about protection for cleaners?

    Cleaners employed to clean the school should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions. See our detailed advice.

    What about ‘deep cleaning’?

    Although there is no clear definition of a deep clean it is accepted that a deep clean is more than a standard or regular clean. Only cleaning staff should be asked to carry out a deep clean of a school or particular area within the school. If you are instructed to carry out deep cleaning duties and you are not employed as a cleaner you should make clear to your manager that this is not your role. If your manager continues to insist you must speak to your school’s UNISON rep or contact the branch office straight away.

    For cleaning staff, a risk assessment and training should be conducted and appropriate personal protective (PPE) equipment provided by the employer before any deep cleaning is carried out. Instructions should also be given on the use of any specialist equipment such as steamers for sanitising equipment, fixtures and fittings within the school.

    Cleaning chemicals should conform to the Chemical Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and be provided by the employer. Staff must never provide their own cleaning materials, solutions or equipment.

    In conjunction with the above, schools should:

    1. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    2. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    3. Notify all staff and any union Health & Safety Reps of what is happening and keep them updated on any developments.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the school
    5. Notify all staff and any trade union Health & Safety Reps, and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice. Also see the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

  • Face coverings in schools

    What are the rules on wearing face coverings in schools?

    The government has advised that from 17 May, face coverings are no longer recommended for pupils in classrooms or communal areas in schools. However, staff and visitors should continue to wear face coverings outside of classrooms where social distancing is not possible, such as corridors or communal areas.

    Under this new government guidance, face coverings can be re-introduced temporarily when there are local outbreaks, including variants of concern. The guidance further states that the decision to reintroduce face coverings as a ‘requirement’ more widely in schools should be made using local public health procedures and advice.

    UNISON opposed this change and has consistently campaigned for face coverings in schools in addition to other protective measures. The Government’s own scientific advisers have recommended that face coverings stay in place at this time. We believe that this advice, alongside the risk of new variants and the potential impact of ‘long Covid’ on the school community, means that lifting this safety measure now is premature and risky.

    UNISON and other schools unions have written to school leaders, multi-academy trusts and local authorities to make the case for keeping face coverings in schools after 17th May with a review at stage 4 of the lockdown roadmap on 19th July.

    Joint union letter to school leaders on face coverings

    We recommend that schools use the flexibility within the new DfE guidance to actively encourage students and staff in secondary schools and colleges to continue wearing face coverings in classrooms and communal areas – subject to review in the run up to the next step on the national roadmap from 21 June.   We would encourage leaders to have discussions with staff and seek to address the understandable concerns that they may have. Nobody, whether staff or student, in any part of a primary or secondary school or college, should be prevented from wearing a face covering if they wish to do so.

    UNISON is clear that employers should urgently update their school risk assessments, as part of their legal duty to identify the measures needed to reduce the risks from COVID-19.  School and college employers are ultimately responsible for the safety of staff and pupils. They will need to ensure that they  take all the appropriate steps to prevent transmission of the virus in their educational setting. UNISON is calling on schools to urge pupils and staff to continue wearing face coverings in classrooms and communal areas as a specific measure under their risk assessments, to mitigate the risks from new variants.

  • My school has asked me to turn off the Track and Trace App – is this right?

    A small number of schools have told staff to turn the NHS app off the whole time when they are in schools. This is wrong – Department for Education guidance is clear:  Pausing contact tracing in schools is only recommended in 3 situations:

    • when an individual is not able to have their phone with them, for example because it is stored in a locker or communal area – this is to avoid the app picking up contacts when the individual is not with their phone

    • when an individual is working behind a perspex (or equivalent) screen, fully protected from other colleagues and members of the public, as the individual is considered to be adequately protected from contracting coronavirus (COVID-19)

    • in a health or care setting where staff are wearing medical grade PPE (for example, a surgical mask) as these individuals are also considered to be adequately protected

    Where mobile phones are allowed to be on and with the student at all times – it is recommended that contact tracing is left on by students, to be consistent with general guidance on the use of the app. There are still likely to be times when students and staff are not near their phones, such as during physical education or in some work placements in FE. In these situations contact tracing should be switched off, and settings might want to issue reminders to pause contact tracing for these sessions and turn it back on afterwards.

    Where mobile phones are required to be left in lockers or bags in communal areas at all times. It is recommended that settings advise or require students to pause contact tracing whilst on the premises under these circumstances, to avoid the app misidentifying close contacts. When someone switches it off, the app will give the user the option to set a reminder for 4, 8 or 12 hours, after which they will receive a notification to remind them to switch contact tracing back.

    UNISON was at a national meeting with the DfE (at which the School Minister was present) at which this advice was confirmed.

  • Pay, terms and conditions (schools)

    If I have to self-isolate or my school is closed as a result of a local lockdown will I still be paid?

    The overwhelming majority of school members, including in academies, are covered by protections under the NJC ‘Green Book’ terms and conditions. The Green Book is negotiated by UNISON and the other support staff unions and contains the following clause:

    “An employee who is prevented from attending work because of contact with infectious disease shall be entitled to receive normal pay. The period of absence on this account shall not be reckoned against the employee’s entitlements under this scheme”

    This means that if you are employed under Green Book terms and conditions and are required to self-isolate you will continue to receive your normal pay. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or used as part of any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    Even if you are not covered by Green Book terms and conditions, your employer should observe this agreement during this emergency. If you have issues with your employer, please urgently raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance.

    I work for a catering contractor in the school. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the school is closed due to a local lockdown?

    We oppose the privatisation of school services such as catering, as the only way to make the savings that the private companies promise your school is by cutting your terms and conditions.

    Private contractors who deliver catering, cleaning, IT services, etc. are still being paid by the school, so contracted staff should be fully paid. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON believes that contractors should comply with the same procedures as the school in this emergency, otherwise this could undermine attempts to reduce the spread of virus. We are calling on schools to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Schools, Safer Schools campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance.

    I have been asked to work in a different role, or a different school. Is this reasonable?

    If schools need staff to be redeployed temporarily to other duties, or even other schools, some degree of flexibility will be required BUT schools should seek volunteers first. Additional costs associated with travel should be paid in accordance with whatever policies are in place.

    If staff are asked to temporarily undertake different roles, they must be given suitable training and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Staff who are asked to take on lower-grade roles should continue to be paid at their normal grade, and staff covering higher-grade roles should be paid the higher rate.

    Download our briefing for teaching assistants and cover supervisors

    I am employed on a Term-Time Only contract (TTO), do I have to work during school holidays?

    No. In recent years lots of our schools have reduced the pay of support staff so that they are only paid during term-time. We have always opposed this. One consequence is that those staff no longer have a contractual requirement to be available for work during school holidays. If you are employed on a term-time only contract you can choose whether to work during the holiday. If you do, you should be paid additional hours for this.

    Can I be asked to work during school holidays or on bank holidays?

    Some schools may decide to open for the children of key workers during school holidays and/or on bank holidays. For staff who are paid full-year then you can be asked to work during the holidays (there are different considerations for staff who are employed on teacher’s terms and conditions). Employers should be reasonable and take into account childcare or other genuine cases which would mean you cannot come in to work.

    If you are only paid term-time, then you are unlikely to have a contractual obligation to work during school holidays. If you volunteer to work, you should be paid additional hours.

    I am an agency staff member. Will I still be paid during periods of COVID-related absences/closures period?

    The school should, as a minimum, pay you to the end date of your assignment. In addition many schools have already committed to continue full pay for agency staff in line with directly employed staff during the entire emergency. Agency staff will, alongside other school-employed staff, play a vital role and UNISON is arguing that you should be kept on full pay during this period.

  • Pregnant women in schools

    I am pregnant and worried about returning to work, what are my rights?

    Pregnant women, at any stage of their pregnancy, are classed by the government as being “clinically vulnerable”. The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) has issued advice which notes that, while pregnant women may not be more likely to become infected by Covid-19, those who contract any respiratory illnesses in the third trimester of pregnancy (ie the 28th week and beyond) can become seriously unwell. It also notes that absolute assurance cannot be given that contracting Covid-19 carries no greater risk to women at an earlier stage of their pregnancy and carries no risk to the unborn baby. Finally, it notes that some pregnant women and new mothers may be at increased risk due to other factors. The government advice says that “we advise employers and pregnant women to follow this [the RCOG] advice”.

    This means you should be working from home wherever possible. Your Head Teacher (or line manager) should already have drawn up a pregnancy risk assessment with you and this should have been regularly updated. By now, this should include reference to Covid-19 and that you are “clinically vulnerable”.

    Go to our specific advice for pregnant workers

    If you cannot work from home, or your Head Teacher has asked you to come back into school you must contact us for advice and support. You must only return to school of strict social distancing can be observed. The Department for Education has said that children cannot socially distance in school, therefore it is difficult to see how you can be brought back into the school environment. In most cases your Head Teacher should:

    • Enable you to work from home, and continue to pay you your normal pay
    • If you cannot work from home you must be deployed to a role that avoids children and means you can maintain strict social distancing at all time
    • If the above options are not possible, you should be placed on maternity suspension and continue to receive your normal pay
  • School catering

    I work in school meals but I have not seen, or been spoken to, regarding a risk assessment. 

    It is a legal requirement that trade union representatives are consulted on the risk assessment. The School Food Plan Alliance have produced a helpful checklist to assist schools in their risk assessment, which your school may find useful along with the wider joint union checklist. If you have not seen a risk assessment for your workplace before you return to work, or you are still unsure about what is expected of you, please contact the branch office straight away.

    I am being asked to change my hours to cover staggered lunch breaks but I have responsibilities outside of work that make this impossible. 

    Many schools are choosing to operate a staggered lunch and/or break service to keep ‘bubbles’ separate. In most cases this is sensible and shows that the school is considering the safety of staff and pupils. However, changing your hours of work is a change to the terms and conditions that you agreed to when you took the job and must not be done without your consent. There should be enough staff working to ensure that a rota can be covered without affecting anyone detrimentally and management should communicate with all staff concerned to find a solution that suits everyone.

    Your manager must discuss the changes with you first and must get your agreement. In most cases a sensible discussion can result in sensible outcomes that suit both employer and employee. If you feel under pressure to change your hours, or are being told you must change your hours, please contact the branch office straight away. We can support you in discussions with your employer and there may be some situations where the law gives you additional rights such as caring for a dependent.

    I work for a catering contractor in the school. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the school is closed due to a local lockdown?

    We oppose the privatisation of school services such as catering, as the only way to make the savings that the private companies promise your school is by cutting your terms and conditions.

    Private contractors who deliver catering, cleaning, IT services, etc. are still being paid by the school, so contracted staff should be fully paid. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON believes that contractors should comply with the same procedures as the school in this emergency, otherwise this could undermine attempts to reduce the spread of virus. We are calling on schools to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Schools, Safer Schools campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents. We think this will be the same in schools when all pupils return in September.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance.

    I have been told to buy my own PPE – is this right?

    If PPE is required for you to be able to do your job safely, then your employer is required, by law, to provide it for you.

    There are some grey areas however over what is seen as PPE and what isn’t, for example:

    Uniforms are not generally seen as PPE but a protective apron to prevent the spread of infection would be.

    One area where there is currently confusion is “face-coverings” vs “face masks”. A face mask (which is PPE) is provided on the basis of risk assessment as necessary to minimise the risk of infection. This must be provided by the employer ensuring it meets the relevant certification requirements, is cleaned and maintained, and staff are trained in its use. A face covering is not considered PPE, as although it may help in reducing the rate of transmission, it does not provide the level of protection necessary to minimise the risk of infection.

    I have been told that not enough children are having school meals and that my job might be at risk. What should I do?

    In schools where there have been a high number of cases of children needing to isolate, there may have been a downturn in demand for school meals due to fewer children buying them. However UNISON believes that the school meals service is vital and we cannot lose valuable skilled members of staff who will be needed once the pandemic is over.

    There are many government-backed schemes available to companies who provide school meals to help them through this time and reduce the effect on staffing. UNISON will negotiate with providers who are struggling on how they can get the bet from these schemes and save jobs.

    If you receive a notification from your employer that says your hours will be cut or you are in danger of losing your job, please contact the branch office straight away.

  • Special schools/colleges and alternative provision

    We have updated our specific advice for members working in special schools and alternative provision, which should be read in addition to the advice and guidance for all schools.

  • Teaching Assistants, PPA time and Cover Supervison

    Should teaching assistants/learning support assistants be leading classes?

    Throughout the COVID-19 crisis school staff have gone above and beyond to keep schools running and support children and young people. During this time many staff have stretched the boundaries of their job roles to help schools out while vulnerable colleagues were forced to stay away from work or while other colleagues were re-assigned to other areas.

    UNISON has concerns that teaching assistants will be asked to lead full classes and cover full teaching duties. This would not be fair on staff or pupils.

    In July 2020 the DfE issued its guidance for full opening, which has a specific section on school staff:

    “Where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions. Teaching assistants may also be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher (under the Education (Specified Work) (England) Regulations 2012 for maintained schools and non-maintained special schools and in accordance with the freedoms provided under the funding agreement for academies). Any redeployments should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND. Headteachers should be satisfied that the person has the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work, and discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff. This includes ensuring that safe ratios are met, and/or specific training undertaken, for any interventions or care for pupils with complex needs where specific training or specific ratios are required.” 

    A key sentence in the DfE guidance is: ‘…discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff.’ Schools should not impose new roles or duties on staff. We  expect that changes which impact on others should be discussed with all those affected, and that the local UNISON reps should be involved. If there are no school-based reps then schools should discuss any changes with branch officers either directly (if an Academy school) or via NYCC (if a local authority school). Members who are unhappy with proposals or are aware that their school has not talked to the union should contact the branch office straight away or ask their Head Teacher to contact us.

    Our clear position is that only suitably experienced teaching assistants should be asked to lead classes and then only in situations known about in advance, for example where a teacher is working from home due to being in a vulnerable group, and where another teacher is unavailable. Suitably experienced teaching assistants are only those whose job description already includes this occasional responsibility, usually Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs, working at levels 4 and 5 according to the NJC model job profiles), and who are paid at the appropriate grade.

    Where HLTAs are deployed to lead classes, they should be provided with enough time within their contracted hours to plan and prepare, including opportunities to liaise with class teachers. They too should be supported by a teaching assistant. UNISON is clear that HLTAs should not be expected to lead classes on an indefinite basis, although we are also aware of the importance of protecting the integrity of any classes/bubbles as much as possible in current circumstances. Any arrangement for a HLTA to lead a class should be reviewed and agreed with the staff member on at least a fortnightly basis.

    What about cover for teacher PPA time?

    Under normal circumstances, schools are required to put additional staff into their timetable to ensure that teaching continues during PPA time. During the spring/summer lockdown it was expected that small classes/bubbles would be kept intact to restrict movement. In order to maintain PPA time, many schools operated an adjusted timetable, for example closing classrooms to pupils for a day or afternoon a week, using that time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned.

    In many schools September re-opening should see a return to previous practice. Where bubbles/small classes remain, the school must do a risk assessment to ensure that any adjustment to ‘normal’ routine and/or staff moving between classes/bubbles does not increase risks. Some schools are operating an adjusted timetable to maintain smaller bubbles and facilitate PPA time. For example, closing classrooms to pupils for an afternoon a week and using this time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned.

    What about cover supervision?

    Cover supervision should only be for a teacher’s short-term absence from the classroom where the absence was not known about in advance (for example to cover short-term sickness). If small classes/bubbles continue, then ideally the allocated teaching assistant should provide this cover. To undertake cover supervision, TAs should have skills and knowledge of at least level 3 and be paid at the appropriate grade for this level (see the NJC model job profiles). In this situation there is no expectation that active teaching takes place. Rather, pupils should carry out a pre-prepared exercise under supervision. For more information see our factsheet on cover supervision.

    Schools should consider contingency arrangements for appropriate  cover supervision in their planning.

    What should members do if the use of teaching assistants in school is inappropriate?

    As much as UNISON understands the challenging circumstances in which schools are operating, it is not fair to staff or pupils if staff are being deployed inappropriately. If you have any concerns about how teaching assistant are being deployed in your school please contact the branch office straight away.

  • Ventilation and airborne transmission

    What is the government’s guidance on airborne transmission?

    Significantly the government and Public Health England have now admitted the role of airborne transmission, particularly in poorly ventilated places where groups of people spend long periods of time together (this crucial new information is particularly important for schools). See section 8, ‘keeping occupied spaces well ventilated’ of the DfE guidance for more information.

    Schools should seek to achieve both ventilation and thermal comfort – by opening windows and doors (where fire regulations permit it), keeping heating on and taking other steps to ensure constant flow of fresh air throughout the building. Schools should not use rooms which lack adequate ventilation, for example due to windows which cannot open.

    What if it gets too cold?

    Employers have a legal duty to maintain a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace without the need to wear additional clothing such as coats and gloves. The recommended minimum temperature for an office or classroom is 16 degrees. This requirement applies regardless of Covid.

    If the temperature becomes too cold due to Covid mitigation (such as open windows) then employers should consider moving staff to a different room, using alternative ways to ventilate, or ultimately allowing staff to go home (without loss of pay).

    How do I identify poorly ventilated areas?

    Where your school (or parts of it) are poorly ventilated, employers need to improve ventilation in those areas to reduce the risk of airborne transmission.

    There are some simple ways to identify poorly ventilated areas:

    • Look for areas where there is no mechanical ventilation or no natural ventilation, such as opening windows and vents etc, unless doors are opened very frequently
    • Check that mechanical systems provide outdoor air, temperature control or both. If a system (eg a local air conditioner) is recirculating only and doesn’t have an outdoor air supply, or a separate source of outdoor air, the area is likely to be poorly ventilated
    • Identify areas that feel stuffy or smell badly
    • Use carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors to identify the CO2 levels to help decide if ventilation is poor. CO2 monitors are most effective for areas that are regularly attended by the same group of people. They are less effective in areas with low numbers of people

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