COVID-19 advice for school & early years staff


Posted in Branch news
  • Safe schools for all 
  • Special schools
  • Early years
  • What if I have a question?

The government has advised that from 17 May face coverings in schools are no longer recommended.

UNISON opposed this change and has consistently campaigned for face coverings in schools in addition to other protective measures.

We alongside other schools unions have written to school leaders, making the case for face coverings to remain in place for now. We have also updated our advice for members.

Read the advice and joint union letter

Safe schools for all

Schools in England reopened to all pupils from 8 March. Please see UNISON’s Cymru/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland websites above for more information on restrictions in these countries.

The government has updated its guidance for schools during this period. UNISON believes that this advice does not go far enough to improve school safety.

Our checklist below describes the measures you can ask your employer to implement to keep schools safe in this stage of the pandemic.

Read our updated joint union risk assessment checklist 

I’m clinically extremely vulnerable, do I need to go back to work?

The government lifted its shielding advice for clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people from 1 April. However, the government advises that CEV people should:

  • work at home where possible.
  • continue to keep the number of social interactions low and try to reduce the amount of time spent in settings where they are unable to maintain social distancing.
  • note that no vaccine is 100% effective and therefore even with both doses, there is still no absolute guarantee that a CEV person will not become ill from COVID-19.

Clearly it is extremely difficult to maintain social distancing in school settings.  It is for these reasons, coupled with the risk from new variants, that the trade unions are calling on employers to allow all CEV staff to continue to work from home at this stage If they choose to (these arrangements can then be jointly reviewed at stage 3 and 4 of the government’s roadmap for exiting the lockdown).

See our model letter in our updated guidance below for you to submit to your school.

Advice for medically vulnerable and high-risk staff  

I’m CEV – my employer says I have to come into work but I don’t feel safe. What can I do?

If your employer still refuses to allow you to work from home after you have submitted a request, then we advise you to immediately take the following steps:

  • Request an individual Risk Assessment (RA) and ask the school to set out in writing in the RA how they will ‘guarantee’ strict social distancing at all times. Also ask the employer how they will protect you from airborne transmission risks both in work and on your journey to and from work
  • Seek a letter from your doctor supporting your case for working from home
  • Alert your branch and ask for support and advice

UNISON believes that working from home will also be the safest option for other employees with underlying vulnerabilities or who live with people who are clinically extremely vulnerable.

There are a number of staff who may be at higher risk from the virus than the general population because of certain characteristics, including race, gender, age and disability. Schools should conduct individual risk assessments for employees in known higher-risk groups, with consideration of working from home as a protective measure. UNISON has published specific guides for Black and disabled members on their rights during the pandemic.

Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

The health and safety responsibilities owed by school and college employers

School staff have a right to a safe working environment and individuals shouldn‘t have to work where they reasonably believe that they (or others)  face serious and imminent danger.  The following link outlines main health and safety legislation, including your rights not to face serious and imminent danger at work (Section 44 ECRA 1996).  Following legal advice we will not be issuing national blanket advice to submit S44 letters as we did in January as the situation is different.  However UNISON branches can advise members how to use their rights if you  feel you are being put at serious or imminent risk.

Download further information on Schools and colleges’ health and  safety responsibilities

Special Schools

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

The advice from the Department for Education states that most, if not all, pupils attending special schools/colleges and alternative provision are classed as vulnerable and should therefore be receiving a face-to-face education. UNISON does not believe is it possible to do this safely and we have therefore set out our own guidance on how this can be done safely.

UNISON guidance for special schools/colleges and alternative provision

If you have any concerns about your educational setting or need support please contact your branch for advice.

Early Years

Early years settings, including nurseries, have remained open during the latest lockdown, but as schools reopen, it is likely that the number of children in attendance will increase.

What is UNISON calling for?

UNISON believes that all early years settings will need to review their risk assessments as a result of the increased pupil numbers. Settings will need to carefully manage the re-introduction of children and the impact that this has on established ‘bubbles’.

We believe that ‘bubbles’ should be limited to 16 children. It is important that staff are not asked to mix between ‘bubbles’ as there remains a high risk of infection given the increased transmissibility of new variants of Covid-19.

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 review the long-term funding support to early years settings to ensure that we have a sustainable sector.

Can I refuse to attend work if I believe that my workplace is unsafe?

UNISON remains clear that members who work in early years have a right to a safe working environment. We will continue to place pressure on the Government and employers to ensure this. In addition, individuals shouldn’t have to work where they reasonably believe that they (or others) face serious and imminent danger.

Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

Can early years staff still qualify for furlough?

If staff meet the qualifying criteria then they can still be placed on furlough. This applies if the setting either closes, or remains open but at reduced capacity.

Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

What if I have a question?

A full list of FAQs for school support staff and early years staff in England is provided below. (See links at the top of the page for advice in Scotland, Cymru/Wales and Northern Ireland.).

If you are concerned about safety issues in your school or think that agreements are not being followed, please get in touch with your local UNISON branch.

Contact my branch

For more information about your rights at work please visit our dedicated web page