Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance On Schools Reopening

This guidance has been issued in response to the First Minister’s statement to Parliament on 2 February 2021 announcing a phased return to in-person learning in schools from 22 February which was confirmed on 16 February. It is intended to provide clarity on arrangements for school education in February/March 2021 and to help schools to plan for the full-time return of children in P1-P3, for the part-time return of some young people in the senior phase and a small increase in existing provision for children and young people with significant additional support needs. Early learning and childcare will also return on 22 February – separate guidance has been prepared on this.

Plans for potential return of children and young people in other year groups will also be kept under regular review – Ministers are clear that further changes should be driven by the data and not by dates.

This guidance, therefore, supplements the existing Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance specifically to support schools and local authorities during February/March 2021. With a small number of exceptions (for example, the need for 2m distancing between young people in secondary school) all aspects of the existing guidance and accompanying mitigations continue to apply while schools are open.


These exceptional arrangements are being put in place in light of the latest developments in the path of the virus, following the emergence of new variants. As set out in the Advice From The Covid-19 Advisory Sub-Group On Education And Children’s Issues published on 3 February 2021, case numbers, levels of community transmission and test positivity rates are still high but are generally decreasing.

There is understandable anxiety among staff about a return to school given these rates of transmission. As part of the process of phased return, every possible step should therefore be taken by local authorities and schools to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in schools. The mitigations set out in Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance and the additional measures set out in this guidance should be strictly adhered to.

In recognition that progress in suppressing the virus to previous low levels will likely take some more weeks, it has been decided to return to in-school learning in a staged/progressive way. This approach will enable time for planning each step change and for monitoring its impacts and the need for stability and sustainability of approach.

A range of previously published evidence has made clear that schools are low risk environments when the appropriate mitigations and safety measures outlined in the Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance are implemented, and this remains our judgement – there is to date no evidence that in-school transmission is a significant driver of increasing infection levels. There is also evidence about the impacts of loss of access to in-person provision on educational and developmental outcomes and the need to consider the impacts of remote learning and a phased return to in-person learning on children’s rights and wellbeing.

However, the emergence of the new variants of COVID-19 (particularly B.1.1.17) means that fully reopening schools at this time would not be consistent with a safety-first approach for children, young people and school staff. This is due to a combination of:

  • the need to monitor carefully the impact of any reopening before expanding more widely, especially as a result of higher uncertainty regarding the trajectory of the virus as a result of the new variants
  • the status of evidence regarding the health impact of the new variants and their impact on transmission amongst children and young people and transmission from children and young people to adults

The effects of these initial steps will be carefully monitored before any further decisions are made about future phases of return and a return to in-school learning for other children and young people. This will include the impact on community transmission and further assessment of the implications of the new variant of the virus.

Arrangements for school opening from 22 February

Schools have been open since early January to provide learning and support for vulnerable children and children of key workers only. From 22 February children in P1-P3 and a small number of young people in the senior phase will also return to school. This includes children and young people in special schools/units. Educational Continuity Directions have previously been issued to provide the legal basis for the approach since January, and will be updated in due course:

  • until schools can reopen more fully, which will be at the earliest date possible, attendance in schools should be restricted to:
    • children in P1, P2 and P3
    • a very small cohort of senior phase learners on a limited basis to carry out practical tasks for the alternative certification model for national qualifications. No more than 5 – 8% of the secondary school roll should be in school at any time for this purpose, specifically to support learning in practical subjects that cannot be delivered remotely. Education Scotland has published technical guidance on this.
    • vulnerable children, including a small increase in provision for children and young people with significant additional support needs where there is a clear and demonstrable necessity. A definition is provided later in this supplementary guidance
    • staff who, in the judgement of the local authority and schools, are required to attend in person to give effect to these revised school reopening arrangements.
      This may, for example, include: staff needed to ensure the safe opening and operation of the school, including senior leadership teams; facilities management staff, caterers, cleaners, etc; teaching and support staff required to attend to teach P1-P3 classes or senior phase practical activities or deliver in-person support to vulnerable children and children of key workers, or to deliver remote learning if they cannot do so from home. In light of the strict lockdown conditions in place at the current exceptional time, local authorities and schools should ensure that only those staff who are required to support these essential activities are requested to attend in person, and ensure that updated guidance on individuals on the shielding list is followed.
  • local authorities and schools may wish to draw on lessons learnt from running childcare hubs earlier in the pandemic when putting in place the local arrangements in schools to meet the needs of vulnerable children and the children of key workers
  • the role of certain in-class roles (e.g. pupil support staff) and the part they may play in supporting remote learning should be discussed locally with staff and unions
  • appropriate provision of school transport for children and young people attending school should continue. Advice on safe school travel remains in place. [subject to revision following Advisory Sub-group on 9 Feb]
  • senior phase learners in school to carry out practical activities related to national qualifications should be provided with an appropriate timetable of remote learning for when they are not in school.
  • all learners not attending school should be provided with an appropriate timetable of remote learning until schools can reopen more fully, which will be at the earliest date possible.
  • regular reviews of these arrangements will be undertaken, taking into account the latest evidence about the new variant and progress in reducing community transmission levels. Arrangements following these reviews will be communicated at the earliest opportunity
  • local authorities and schools should, in consultation with trade unions and employees, ensure that local risk assessments and individual risk assessments for clinically vulnerable children, young people and staff are up to date, to ensure the safe running of schools and school transport under these arrangements. Consideration may, for example, be given to any additional mitigations that could be put in place due to fewer numbers of people being in school buildings. Local decisions should be made about whether specific staff may work from home where their attendance is not required to give effect to these and how this can be facilitated.
  • out of school childcare settings, including breakfast and after school clubs, have been asked to only remain open for children who may be considered vulnerable, and for the children of key workers. This could include teachers and other school staff who will be back in school to support the phased return from 22 February. Individual childcare providers have been asked to consider which children and families will benefit most from continued attendance at their usual setting, and to prioritise places accordingly. It remains important that childcare providers reduce the number of children, young people and staff who need to attend in person as far as possible and minimise any mixing of children and young people from different schools.
  • temporary lockdown guidance for colleges has also been published. This makes clear that senior phase school pupils should not attend college while schools are only providing in-person learning for a very limited number of pupils. Colleges should explore whether arrangements can be made for this learning to take place online. Further discussions will take place urgently to explore any potential changes to the guidance around senior phase learners attending college for essential practical work necessary to complete courses for certification purposes. Visiting college lecturers and other staff who deliver courses within schools should follow the school guidance and any sectoral guidance. For example, guidance from colleges and universities that applies to on-campus and off-campus activity.
  • P1-P3 return to school

    The First Minister announced on 2 February that children in P1-P3 should return to full-time in-person schooling from 22 February and this was confirmed on 16 February.  In its report published on 3 February, the COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues advised that on the current balance of evidence, the reopening could take place subject to a continued decrease in the levels of community transmission and in the prevalence of the virus. This advice reflects the key developmental stage of this age-group, for socialisation as well as learning and development; the evidence that young children are less likely to transmit the virus and to have serious health effects from it; recognition that these children are less likely to successfully engage with remote learning than are older children; and that vulnerable children at this stage are less able to access other resources for their protection and wellbeing than are many older children.

    While bringing back to school children in P1-P3 will be relatively straightforward in many schools, it will be less straightforward in those that have composite classes. P3/P4 classes are fairly commonplace, some smaller schools run P3/P4/P5 classes, while the smallest schools have the entire primary cohort in a single class.

    Where P3/P4 composite classes are in place, it is expected that the class teacher continues to plan for both groups as they are at the moment. P3 children should be taught in school and remote learning should continue for P4. Local operational decisions will be key; it will be for the school (and local authority) to consider how best to organise staff to enable elements of live learning to continue when appropriate for the P4 group. Having P4 children in composite classes in school would increase the number of children in school and would also send mixed messages about which children are returning to school.

    P3 children in P3/P4/P5 classes should also be taught in school and similar arrangements to provide remote support should be put in place for P4 and P5 children in those schools.

    Schools and local authorities will need to consider the workload implications for staff in providing learning to both learners onsite and for those learners who continue to learn at home. This is an area in which local authorities could prioritise the use of additional teachers to provide support.

    For very small schools (those with 25 children or fewer on their school roll), where the entire primary cohort is taught in a single class, there may be insufficient staff to teach P1-P3 in school and P4-P7 remotely. These schools often have a single teacher for the whole class and it would not therefore be possible to teach the class and provide remote learning at the same time. In those circumstances, where it is not possible to provide remote learning for P4-P7, the Advisory Subgroup has advised that the school/local authority can decide to bring the entire cohort back into school from 22 February, given the very small number of P4-P7 children that would involve. Where it is possible to provide both in-school (P1-P3) and remote learning (P4-P7) at the same time, that is how these schools should operate.

    In exceptional circumstances schools may consider providing in-person learning for all children within P3/4 composite classes. Before doing so, they should consider reconfiguring existing staff where possible, as well as exploring avenues to bring in additional staff if necessary. Only as a last resort, and in an event where they could demonstrate it was impossible to maintain in-person and remote learning in parallel, should they look to use this provision.

  • Senior phase – practical tasks

    Senior phase learners will return part-time from 22 February, albeit on a limited basis, for the purpose of completing the learning and teaching of critical practical work in relation to qualifications in 2021 (for example NQs, NPAs, SfWs, FAs and others) that can only be carried out in school.

    Schools must ensure that the number of senior phase learners timetabled in school to undertake practical work at any one time does not exceed 5-8% of the secondary school roll. This number is a cap, and not an indication of the number of learners that schools are expected to have in the building at all times. This number does not include the provision for keyworker and vulnerable children. Schools should consider the arrangements they have in place to keep these two groups separate wherever possible.

    If those young people who attend school go offsite for lunch, they should follow the rules in place for wider society, for example wearing a face covering when entering a shop. Risk assessments should consider procedures for when children and young people leave and return to school premises, including hand hygiene. Schools may wish to contact local shops in advance to alert them to plans.

    Remote learning should be the main delivery model in use, schools should only consider in-school learning where it is absolutely necessary.

    Education Scotland and the Scottish Government have worked with partners to produce detailed technical guidance intended to provide clarity and support for local authorities and secondary schools on providing arrangements for these small groups of senior phase learners carrying out practical work in-school.

    School transport for the senior phase

    Arrangements should be made between schools, local authority transport teams and transport operators to ensure that appropriate school transport provision is in place to support senior phase learners’ return to school for the purpose of the critical practical work described above. Such arrangements will need to take account of the fact that learners may attend for only part of the school day or for designated sessions and ensure that learners’ time in school is minimised. Consideration should be taken of issues, such as, timetabling of lesson/sessions to align with transport services and the need to enable learners to access school meals, particularly those eligible for free school meals. It may also be necessary to make learners that are eligible for free school transport aware they may travel on registered (public) bus services if that is a more convenient option for their journey home after their session has finished.

  • Support for vulnerable children and young people

    Some children and young people rely upon the care and protection provided by schools and other agencies in relation to a range of specific circumstances.

    Local authorities (including through joint working between Chief Social Work Officers and Directors of Education) should ensure and prioritise continued care and support for these learners during the period until schools reopen more fully. In doing so, they should consider how best to apply the definitions below whilst balancing the overarching policy aims of reducing the number of children, young people and staff who need to attend school in person as far as possible.

    That remains the case. In addition to the broader return to school, the First Minister’s statement of 2 February indicated that a small number of further children and young people with additional support needs should be considered for return to school on 22 February. This should include those across any stages of learning within special schools and enhanced provision for whom there is a clear and demonstrable necessity for the provision of learning and support from in-person provision that cannot otherwise be provided at home. However, these decisions require to be taken within the context of the continued need to manage the number of children and young people attending in-person provision. Therefore the considerations set out below, in relation to the management of provision continue to apply, ie if they can continue to learn at home then they should do so. Further guidance on supporting children and young people with complex additional support needs has been provided.

    Vulnerable children and young people – definition

    The definition in place since the start of January 2021 continues to apply. Children and young people may be vulnerable because of factors related to their personal development, features of their family life, or because of wider influences that impact on them within their community.

    Those children who were considered to be vulnerable prior to the pandemic should have been known to services, and are likely to have had a child’s plan. The pandemic has brought others into this category, for example through loss of family income.

    Where a child requires co-ordinated support from more than one agency, this is likely to suggest greater vulnerability, and the plan would be co-ordinated by a lead professional. This would include a range of children and young people, such as those:

    • at risk of significant harm, with a child protection plan
    • looked after at home, or away from home
    • ‘on the edge of care’, where families would benefit from additional support
    • with additional support needs, where there are one or more factors which require significant or co-ordinated support
    • affected by disability
    • where they and/or their parents are experiencing poor physical or mental health
    • experiencing adversities including domestic abuse and bereavement
    • requiring support when they are involved in making transitions at critical stages in their lives

    Children and families may also experience adversity because of the impact of poverty and disadvantage (including entitlement to free school meals), and many will be facing this because of the necessary measures to respond to the pandemic. This will include families with loss of income, experiencing social isolation, or otherwise struggling because of the lockdown.

    Decision making for this group

    Local authorities and health boards, working with partners including third sector organisations, will either know or be able to identify the children and families within their areas who are potentially at risk and therefore need additional support. The need for additional support can be identified prior to birth, so this should include help for pregnant women.

    Crucially, vulnerability is not an exclusive concept, but should take account of all of these factors and others, that means that a child and family may need additional support. The judgement of the children’s sector professionals – critically those working most closely with the family – will be paramount in assessing vulnerability.

    Those who work directly with children and young people are best placed to identify children and young people who will require support in order to ensure their wellbeing, as a result of these exceptional phased opening arrangements.

    As noted above, when determining which vulnerable children should attend school in person, local authorities and schools should have regard to the overarching policy aim of these exceptional school closures, which is to reduce the number of children, young people and adults from different households interacting in- person within communities (including schools) as far as possible, in order to prevent COVID-related harms. If it is possible for children to be cared for safely and have their learning supported sufficiently well at home, that approach should be preferred.

    Named Person (key point of contact) service

    Named persons as key points of contact are a very important first response for vulnerable children (as defined above).

    Local authorities will consider how best to continue to provide key points of contact during this period until schools can reopen more fully.

  • Support for children of keyworkers

    The definitions of key workers agreed with local authorities previously during the pandemic will continue to apply. The need for local flexibility to suit local circumstances is acknowledged. The definition of key workers sets out that:

    • there should be a particular focus on key workers in posts which ensure that essential services can be delivered and cover tasks within the local community which support the vulnerable and aid community resilience. This may be slightly different in each community to allow the country to address local priorities. Whilst decisions will be taken at the local level, we would expect this to include consideration of:
      • Category 1 – Health and Care workers directly supporting COVID-19 response, and associated staff; Health and Care workers supporting life threatening emergency work, as well as critical primary and community care provision; energy suppliers (small numbers identified as top priority already); staff providing childcare/learning for other category 1 staff. This will now include staff who, in the judgement of the local authority and schools, are required to attend in person to give effect to these revised school reopening arrangements.
      • Category 2 – All other Health and Care workers, and wider public sector workers providing emergency/critical welfare services (for example: fire, police, prisons, social workers), as well as those supporting our Critical National Infrastructure, without whom serious damage to the welfare of the people of Scotland could be caused.
      • Category 3 – All workers (private, public or third sector) without whom there could be a significant impact on Scotland (but where the response to COVID-19, or the ability to perform essential tasks to keep the country running, would not be severely compromised).

    These categories are relevant only to consideration of the allocation of exceptional places for children and young people for in-person learning. They are not intended to inform decisions about which staff should be asked to attend work in person (employers should refer to Coronavirus: Guidance on working from home for further information on this). As noted earlier in this guidance, only school staff who, in the judgement of the local authority and schools, are required to attend in person to give effect to these revised school reopening arrangements should do so.

    These categories are intended to support prioritisation of the allocation of places which are limited. For example, Category 1 and 2 workers would take precedence over Category 3 workers if schools do not have sufficient capacity to safely accommodate all requests. Not everyone who is eligible to apply will therefore be guaranteed a place.

    For the avoidance of doubt, during these exceptional arrangements we would expect that all school staff and staff providing daycare of children’s services, including early learning and childcare, who are required to attend their work in person, or who cannot otherwise provide essential support for remote learning while working from home, would qualify as category 1 or 2 key workers. Wider groups of healthcare and other workers who have been brought in to support vaccination rollout and Test and Protect would also be expected to qualify under category 1.

    While there are differences between the current situation and the previous strict lockdown (from March 2020), the gravity of the situation and the overarching aims of the exceptional school closures are judged to be sufficiently similar to support a similar approach as previously to the application of the definition of key workers and the provision of in-person schooling. The following key principles should be applied by local authorities and schools, and communicated clearly to school communities and local employers:

    • there should be clarity on the way in which key workers or their employers can apply for places in schools
    • the number of children taking up these places in schools during the strict lockdown period should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary
    • only key workers who are physically attending their workplace or who cannot fulfil their critical functions when they are working remotely from home while supporting their children’s remote learning may qualify for places
    • where alternative options are available – e.g. where childcare/remote learning can be provided or supported by one non-key-worker parent or carer who is able to work from home – these should be used instead of children attending school in person. Consideration should be given to ensuring application of this approach does not limit the ability of health and care staff (in category 1) to support the COVID-19 response during this period of acute pressure.
    • if it is possible for children to be at home during this exceptional period, until schools reopen to them, then they should be. Whole workforces or entire groups of staff should not be designated as key workers. Doing so would undermine the collective effort we must all make to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives during this period of strict lockdown.

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