Guidance on Planning for Wider Opening of Schools

Posted in : Quarterly Education Law Updates on 14 May 2020
Paul Upson
Napier Solicitors
Issues covered:

Paul Upson is an Associate Director at education law specialists, Napier Solicitors. In this Quarterly Education Law Update, he considers some of the issues that education establishments are likely to have to deal with as they begin the process of reopening for wider groups of pupils.  


The world is a very different place since the last Education Law updated was published in February 2020. We are all trying to come to terms with the impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Sadly, at the time of writing there has now been 449 Coronavirus related deaths in Northern Ireland and many families are grieving for lost loved ones.

The lockdown introduced by government has changed our home life and work life in ways that would have seemed unimaginable just a few months age. Like all employment sectors, our education establishments have had to deal with unprecedented change.

Our schools closed to most pupils on Friday 20 March 2020, although many still remain open to cater for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. The Northern Ireland Executive has now published its Coronavirus recovery strategy, which includes information on the phased reopening of schools to wider groups of pupils. This article looks at some of the issues that may need to be considered as part of any wider reopening of schools in Northern Ireland. 

The Northern Ireland Coronavirus recovery strategy

The Northern Ireland Executive published its Coronavirus recovery strategy on 12 May 2020[1]. The document sets out the approach that the Executive will take when deciding how to ease lockdown restrictions. It sets out a five-step pathway to recovery, which includes a series of examples by sector. The sectors are work; retail; education; travel; family and community; sport, cultural and leisure activities.

The current position for education is outlined in the document – schools are closed except to accommodate vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers; and measures are in place to support remote learning and to provide outreach services to vulnerable children and special needs pupils. No change is proposed at Step 1 in the education sector, but the remaining graduated steps are as follows:

Step 2

In addition, subject to risk assessment and adhering to maximum capacities, provision expanded to cover wider definition of key workers as workplace activity gradually increases.

Step 3

In addition, schools expand provision to accommodate a number of priority cohorts on a part time basis with a blended learning approach involving a combination of in-school and remote learning.

Step 4

In addition, schools expand provision to accommodate all pupils on a part time basis with a blended learning approach involving a combination of in school and remote learning.

Step 5

In addition, subject to medical and scientific advice, expand early year school provision to full time basis. 

The Northern Ireland Executive has not given indicative dates for when a particular sector will move from one step to another[2]. It would seem likely that more pupils will attend school in the near future, as and when the wider definition of a key worker is introduced (see Step 2). The indications are that any phased return of the wider school population (as per Step 3) is unlikely to commence before September 2020 but schools will need to continue to plan for the measures that they will need to implement as a result.

Guidance from Department of Education in Northern Ireland

On 3 April 2020, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland published guidance on implementing social distancing in education settings and it was updated on 21 April 2020[3]. The guidance relates to education provision for children within defined groups who cannot be safely cared for at home (i.e. vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers). Some of the key points from the guidance are set out below.

  • Those at increased and very high risk of severe illness from Coronavirus (COVID-19). Some adults and children are at increased risk of severe illness because of their age, underlying health conditions or pregnancy. Some adults and children with underlying medical conditions are at very high risk of severe illness. As far as possible, children and staff who fall into these categories should not be attending school or pre-school settings.
  • Those living in a household with someone who is at very high risk of severe illness from Coronavirus (COVID-19). Such pupils should only attend if stringent social distancing measures can be adhered to and the child is able to understand and follow those instructions (which may not be possible for very young children and older children without the capacity to adhere to the instructions on social distancing). Staff who live with someone in the most vulnerable health groups should be allowed to work from home where possible.
  • How to implement social distancing. The guidance says that schools should tell children, parents, carers or any visitors (such as suppliers) not to visit if they are displaying any symptoms; should consider how children arrive at the education setting; should reduce any unnecessary travel on coaches, buses or public transport; should ensure class sizes reflect the numbers of teaching staff available and are kept as small as possible: should stagger lunch times, break times and the movement of pupils around the school to reduce large groups of children gathering; and should discourage parents and carers from gathering at school gates.
  • What schools are asked to do. The guidance says that schools should, amongst other matters, make sure that anyone who is feeling ill stays at home; should ensure all staff and children wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds frequently; and should ensure that there is increased cleaning of surfaces in classrooms and within toilet blocks and changing rooms.
  • Effective social distancing. The guidance says that, as much as possible, children, young people and staff should be spaced apart at all times. This means sitting children at desks that are far apart; ensuring everyone queues and eats further apart than normal; keeping apart when in the playground or doing any physical exercise; visiting the toilet one after the other; staggering break times; putting guidelines on the floor in corridors; and avoiding unnecessary staff gatherings.
  • Effective social distancing for very young children. The guidance acknowledges that social distancing for settings with very young children may be harder to maintain and says that schools should implement the recommended measures as far as they are able to, whilst ensuring pupils are safe and cared for.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The guidance says that scientific advice indicates that educational staff do not require personal protective equipment.

Guidance from Department for Education in England

Schools in England are currently being asked to prepare for the possibility that more pupils will return to school from the week commencing 1 June 2020 (with the ambition that all primary level pupils will be back to school in some form before the English school summer holidays begin). As a result, the Department for Education in England has published guidance on what protective measures should be implemented in education and childcare settings there[4]. Some of the key points from the guidance are set out below:

  • Effective infection protection and control. Minimising contact with individuals who have Coronavirus symptoms (or who have someone in their household who does); cleaning hands more often than usual; ensuring good respiratory hygiene; cleaning frequently touched surfaces often; and minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (e.g. classroom layout) and timetables (e.g staggered break times).
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) including face coverings and face masks. The guidance does not recommend wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings in England.
  • Shielded and clinically vulnerable children and young people. Pupils who are clinically extremely vulnerable due to pre-existing medical conditions (and who have been advised to shield) are not expected to attend school.
  • Shielded and clinically vulnerable adults. Education staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable (and who have been advised to shield in order to keep themselves safe) are advised not to attend work. 
  • Living with a shielded or clinically vulnerable person. Pupils or education staff members who live with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, can attend their education setting. If a pupil or education staff member lives in a household with someone who is extremely clinically vulnerable, it is advised that they only attend if stringent social distancing can be adhered to and, in the case of children, they are able to understand and follow those instructions.
  • Class or group sizes. The guidance acknowledges that, unlike older children and adults, primary age pupils cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. Where settings can keep children and young people 2 metres away from each other, they should do so. While in general groups should be kept apart, brief, transitory contact, such as passing in a corridor, is described as low risk. The guidance says that for primary schools, classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher (and, if needed, a teaching assistant). For secondary schools, the same principle of halving classes will normally apply. The guidance says that it is also sensible to rearrange classrooms and workshops with sitting positions 2 metres apart.
  • Planning and organising. The guidance says that schools should refresh their risk assessment and other health and safety advice for pupils and staff; organise small class groups, refresh the timetable (e.g. decide which lessons or activities will be delivered; stagger assembly groups; stagger break and lunch times; stagger drop-off and collection times).
  • Keep cohorts together where possible. The guidance says that schools should ensure that pupils are in the same small groups at all times each day; and that different groups should not mix during the day, or on subsequent days. Schools should ensure that the same teacher/s and other staff are assigned to each group and, as far as possible, these stay the same during the day and on subsequent days. Wherever possible pupils should use the same classroom or area throughout the day, with a thorough cleaning of the rooms at the end of the day.
  • Reduce mixing within education setting. The guidance says that access to rooms should be directly from outside where possible. Schools should consider one-way circulation or placing a divider down the middle of the corridor to keep groups apart as they move between classrooms. Staggering break and lunch times to ensure that any corridors or circulation routes used have a limited number of pupils using them at any time. Ensuring that toilets do not become crowded by limiting the number of pupils who use the toilet facilities at one time.
  • Adjust transport arrangements where necessary. Encouraging parents and pupils to walk or cycle to their education setting, where possible. Ensuring that transport arrangements cater for any changes to start and finish times. 


The guidance referred to above from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland deals with the implementation of social distancing measures within schools when the provision is limited to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. The guidance from the Department for Education in England is designed to apply in circumstances in which wider groups of pupils start a phased return to school.

The two sets of guidance overlap in a number of important ways but, understandably the English guidance goes further given that it is seeking to address how schools put measures in place to deal with increased pupil numbers. It is probably likely that further tailored advice will be issued to education providers in Northern Ireland in due course.

That said, whilst the English guidance does not apply in Northern Ireland, it does illustrate the further operational changes that could be implemented in Northern Irish schools in the future. Given the phased approach to easing the lockdown set out by the Northern Ireland Executive, it would seem likely that school leaders, teachers, pupils and parents are going to be living with substantial changes to school life for some considerable time to come.

[2] The document makes it clear that particular sectors may move through their respective steps at different points in time – e.g. Step 1 for the work section may apply at a different time than Step 1 for the retail section.

This article is correct at 14/05/2020

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Paul Upson
Napier Solicitors

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