Back to school advice (England)

All children in England are expected to return to school in September when the new school year starts. There will be lots of new rules in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the classroom may feel different to before lockdown.

We know that for many of you, the thought of your child going back to school after months of being at home will be worrying. You may have concerns about what your child's school day will look like in September and how they will cope with any changes, or you might be worried about how your son or daughter's health and other care needs will be met while they are there and if they will be safe.

To help, we've outlined some of the key facts you need to know about going back to school, answers to some of parents' top concerns about this and some advice and information to help prepare your child and yourself for September.

Here you will find information on:

Key information you need to know

The government has said that children in all year groups in England will return to school from the beginning of the autumn term in September. Schools are expected to return to a broad and balanced curriculum and to put in place help for children to catch up what they have missed due to the months of lockdown.

The government expects school kitchens to be open from September so school lunches will be provided as usual.

The government has also said that if possible breakfast and after school clubs should resume in September, but they acknowledge this may take longer for some schools.

The normal law on school attendance will apply from September. Children of compulsory school age (5-16) must attend school. This includes children in the clinically extremely vulnerable group who were previously shielding, or living with someone who has been shielding.

Pupils will not have to attend school if they are required to self-isolate because:

  • They have Covid-19 symptoms, or have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • They are a close contact of someone who has Covid-19.
  • They have been advised to shield on clinical or public health advice. This might be because they are in the clinically extremely vulnerable group and there is a local rise in infection rates.

Wellchild has information on what happens if shielding is unpaused.

Key resources to help

See also how Contact can support you.

Children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans

Because of Covid-19, temporary changes were made to the law on EHC plans to relax the rules around providing education and health support and to allow extensions to EHC timescales.

Some of these changes have now ended. This means that a child or young person is entitled to the support specified in their EHC plan and local authorities and health services now have a legal duty to make sure the support is provided.

The rules allowing extensions to timescales for EHC processes are still in force until the 25 September.

What will schools do to keep pupils and staff safe from Coronavirus?

Protective 'bubbles'

Schools are asked to keep groups of pupils apart in separate 'protective bubbles'. This means a child will spend time with the same group all week, and will not mix with the wider group of children throughout the school. Large gatherings such as assemblies should be avoided.

In primary schools children will stick to their own class 'bubbles'. This may not be possible because of the need to deliver a broad curriculum, especially in secondary school. In these settings, a bubble might be the whole year group. To reduce movement around the school and ensure groups stay together, there may be staggered break or lunch times and different entrances and exits.

Alternative provision settings, such as pupil referral units and alternative provision academies and free schools, will vary in size, and protective bubbles may include class groups or whole school groups depending on numbers and the need to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum.

'Bubbles' could be given different break times and drop-off and pick-up times, staggered throughout the day. The overall amount of teaching time should remain the same for everyone.

Hygiene procedures

Schools must:

  • Have strict hand-washing policies.
  • Promote the "catch it, bin it, kill it" approach when it comes to coughing and sneezing.
  • Step up cleaning arrangements.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is only needed if staff already uses it in their normal work to provide intimate personal care to a pupil, or where supporting a pupil who has Covid-19 symptoms where two metre distancing is not possible.

Will school staff and children have to wear face masks in school?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now recommends that children over 12 should wear masks in conditions where social distancing is not possible. In line with this, the government has recently revised its guidance on face coverings in secondary schools and further education colleges.

Where schools are in areas under local lockdown, pupils in year seven and above should wear face coverings in communal areas and when moving around the school (for example in corridors). In areas which are not under lockdown, individual schools can decide for themselves if pupils and staff should wear face coverings around the school.

The government advises that face coverings are not needed in the classroom, as they could make teaching and learning more difficult. Other protective measures, such as distancing and hand hygiene, should help to lower the risk of transmission in the classroom.

Some individuals do not have to wear face coverings. These include:

  • People who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a disability or illness.
  • People who cannot put on, wear or remove a mask without severe distress.
  • People who are speaking to or helping someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.

These exemptions also apply in schools and colleges.

Social distancing

Social distancing - making sure there is enough space between people to stop the Covid-19 virus spreading - has been put in place by the government. Schools are expected to encourage this where possible.

For example, many schools can rearrange classrooms to have forward facing desks with space between them, or markings on the floor to encourage one way systems and show children where to line up. Teachers are encouraged to maintain a two metre distance from each other and from pupils, for example, by teaching at the front of the class. Where this isn't possible teachers should avoid face to face contact spend as little time as possible within one metre of anyone.

It will be up to schools to decide how best to put in place these arrangements depending on the layout of the building, their size and class groupings.

My child doesn't understand social distancing, will they let him go back to school if he can't follow the rules?

Some pupils will not be able to understand and follow social distancing rules and should not be punished or excluded for this. Other measures, such as protective bubbles, handwashing and cleaning will be particularly important where social distancing is not practical, for example with younger age groups.

How will my child's needs like changing, feeding and administering medication happen in September given social distancing rules?

Social distancing will not be possible when working with many pupils with complex needs or where an adult needs to be in close contact with a pupil to provide personal care. The guidance is clear that educational and care support should be provided as normal.

Managing Covid-19 symptoms

Anyone who is ill with Covid-19 symptoms should not come into school.

If someone becomes unwell with suspected Covid-19 symptoms whilst in school they will be sent home and advised to self-isolate for at least 10 days, and to arrange a test.

Other members of the household should self-isolate for 14 days from when the individual first showed symptoms. Staff or pupils do not need to go home to self-isolate unless:

  • They develop symptoms themselves.
  • The first person with symptoms tests positive.
  • They are contacted by the NHS Test and Trace service.

If there is a suspected outbreak of Covid-19 in the school, this will be managed by the school and local health teams. It should not be necessary to close the school unless health officials advise this. A mobile testing unit may be brought in to test affected pupils and staff. A large number of pupils may be asked to self-isolate at home as a precaution.

Routine temperature taking at school is not recommended.

Will children be tested for the virus at school?  

The government currently has no plans to routinely test pupils and staff in schools if they do not have coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms. 

The government has promised to distribute a small number of home testing kits to schools and education settings to give directly to parents or carers collecting a child showing symptoms at school.

If pupils or staff show symptoms, schools must: 

  • Send symptomatic pupils and staff to self-isolate for at least seven days from the onset of symptoms 
  • Ask parents and staff to inform them immediately of their test results 
  • Contact the local health protection team for advice and to book testing 
  • Provide details of anyone who has been close contact with COVID-positive staff or pupils (or if asked by NHS Test and Trace) 

Anyone with coronavirus symptoms, in or out of school, can and should get a test. You can book online through the  NHS website, or order a test by phone via NHS 119 if you have no internet access. 

After a testing: 

  • You child can stop self-isolating and return to school if they test negative, feel well and no longer have coronavirus-like symptoms 
  • If a pupil tests positive, families should follow the  Stay at home: guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection and self-isolate for at least seven days from the start of symptoms. 
  • If your child tests positive, the school, with advice from the local health protection team, will send home pupils and staff who have been close contact with your child to self-isolate for 14 days. 
  • Pupils can return to school when they have no coronavirus symptoms

Getting to and from school

The government has produced guidance on school transport from the autumn term.

The guidance says that public transport use should be kept to an "absolute minimum", especially at peak times. Staggered start and finish times may help with this and pupils are encouraged to walk or cycle to school where possible.

Face coverings are compulsory on public transport for children and young people over 11, unless they are exempt. Face coverings are not compulsory on dedicated school transport services, but they are recommended for all passengers over the age of 11.

School transport services will be expected to put measures in place to keep children safe such as:

  • Move children in 'bubbles' where possible.
  • Provide hand sanitiser.
  • Apply social distancing where possible.
  • Ask children over 11 to wear face coverings unless they are exempt where possible.
  • Ensure that vehicles are well ventilated
  • Increased cleaning of vehicles

Schools will also need a process for staff and pupils to remove face coverings safely on arrival at school.

Children eligible for free transport from their council must continue to receive this. For children with SEND, the transport must be suitable for their individual needs: this means safe and reasonably stress-free.

Local authorities and transport providers must consider the particular needs of children with SEND. They should consider the views of parents and the school:

  • Where all children and young people are travelling to the same special school, they could be transported in a whole school "bubble".
  • Where children and young people need close physical contact, staff may need to wash and sanitise their own hands more often.
  • Some children and young people behave in a way that increases droplet transmission, for example, biting, licking or spitting. In this situation distancing on transport will be particularly important.
  • Although face masks are generally recommended for everyone over 11, some children and young people with SEND may not be able to wear face masks or handle them safely. The use of face masks may also make communication difficult where lip reading is used.
  • Drivers and passenger assistants do not have to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for example gloves, aprons or goggles -  unless this is part of a child or young person's routine care.

My child's disability means they can't wear a mask - what will happen when they travel in the school bus or taxi?

Face coverings are not compulsory on school transport services. Children who cannot wear a mask, for example because of a particular condition, or because it would cause them severe anxiety, do not have to wear one.

My child gets free transport to his special school. Can I get a transport budget so I can take my child to school instead?

Personal travel budgets may be an option offered by your local council, with your consent. Check your local authority's transport policy and contact them to discuss it. The new guidance makes it clear that mileage allowances and personal budgets should cover the cost of the parent's journey to and from school in the morning, and again in the afternoon.

Special schools

Actions to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission will also apply to special schools, with some differences:

  • Because of smaller numbers of children, 'bubbles' are likely to be class sized.
  • Some children and young people with SEND will need more support to understand the new routines and to follow them.
  • Social distancing should be practised where possible but it is recognised that not all children will be able to follow this.
  • Therapists and other visiting staff should provide support as usual.
  • Pupils who are dual registered at a mainstream and special school should attend both settings as usual and should not be isolated because of the risk of greater contact.

Separate guidance has been produced for special schools and for residential settings including residential special schools

Preparing your child to return to school

It will help if you can prepare your child for school as much as possible. Some children may be feeling specially anxious and vulnerable after the prolonged absence and change to their routine, and some children will have enjoyed the freedom of not having to adhere to a strict routine and timetables.

  • ChildLine's Calm Zone has lots of ideas and activities you can do with children to help them keep calm and manage any anxiety they may be feeling about going back to school.
  • Safety Net have a guide to going back to school for older children with tips on reducing anxiety and what to expect in the 'new normal' school environment.
  • Toys and gadgets to help with your child's sensory needs from our Fledglings online shop is full of useful sensory toys other equipment to help your child with the return to school. Take a look in our Back to School department for some inspirational ideas.

Our page on coronavirus and your family's wellbeing has lots of resources and activities plus information on looking after yourself and your child, including tips on managing anxiety.

If your child has a learning or communication difficulty

  • Create a social story to prepare your child for their first day. National Autistic Society has information about social stories that you can use and make for your child to help them understand the return to school.
  • Widgit has a back to school toolkit of visual symbols parents can download to help children with finding the way, personal care, plus wellbeing and mental health resources.
  • Books Beyond Words - Lilly and Lenny return to school - a new story without words to help children returning to school after lockdown.

What you can ask the school to do?

  • Ask to visit the school with your child before the start of term if possible.
  • Ask the teacher or TA to share a video or pictures of changes to the school including one-way systems, a different classroom or unfamiliar staff.
  • Request a reassuring 'welcome back' online session with the teacher or TA before the start of term.
  • Consider a temporary part time timetable to ease your child back to school. This can only be implemented with your agreement. 

Help from your child's specific condition support group

You may find it useful to get in contact with the relevant support group or umbrella organisation for your child's condition to see if they have specific advice about the return to school. You can find the support group for your child's condition in our A-Z medical directory

Answers to some of your common concerns

I've been told that my child won't be allowed back in school next term following a risk assessment

When schools were closed to most pupils, individual risk assessments were necessary to decide whether a pupil with an EHC Plan would be safer at home or at school.

The situation has changed now as all pupils are expected to be back in school from September. Individual risk assessments should not be a barrier to returning to full-time education. They can still be a useful way to decide what additional support children and young people with EHC plans will need to return to full time education.

Guidance says that schools should work with parents and young people over 16 to plan for this full return.

What can I do if my child's anxiety about going back to school means they simply refuse to go?

Schools are aware that many children will need additional support when they return in September. Talk to the school about practical ways they can help your child overcome their anxiety and ease back in to school.

Attendance is compulsory from September for children age five-16, as it was before the lockdown. If you allow your child to stay at home, you risk a fine or further action.

If your child's anxiety is so severe that they are unwell, let the school know this so that your child's absence can be authorised. The school may ask for evidence from a medical professional to show that your child is not fit to attend school. If the absence is likely to be longer term, see our pages on school attendance and absence and seek advice from our helpline on your next steps.

My child struggled to do schoolwork at home and I'm worried about how my child will catch up all the work they have missed.

All children will have had their learning disrupted due to lockdown, and teachers will recognise that many children will not have been able to learn at home. Schools will have a plan in place to identify any gaps in learning and to help pupils catch up. The government has announced extra funding for this.

My child is vulnerable to infections and I don't think it's safe for them to return to school, do I have to send them in?

Attendance is compulsory and you may risk further action, such as a fine, if you do not send your child to school. Official guidance says that it is safe for pupils to be in school from September with the preventive measures in place.

Ask your child's school what steps they are taking to minimise the risk of transmission. If your child already has an individual health plan, it may need updating. See our webpage on how schools should support pupils with medical needs.

If you believe that your child cannot return to school because of their medical condition you are likely to need further medical evidence to show this is the case. See our webpages on attendance for further information and seek advice from our helpline on the next steps.

My child has complex medical needs. Her school are worried about the increased risk of Covid 19 transmission because of the procedures she needs and I'm worried she may not be able to return in September

Your child should not be prevented from returning to school in September because of the care she needs. Her individual risk assessment should be reviewed and updated to decide whether increased safety measures are needed:

The government has produced guidance on safe working in education, childcare and social care settings including the use of PPE

This guidance includes information on caring for children with complex medical needs where there is a risk of droplet transmission:

Can my child still have access to remote learning next term?

Schools must provide remote learning to pupils who have to self-isolate due to Covid-19 (see above) or where large numbers of pupils have to stay home due to a local lockdown.

Schools will be expected to plan a high-quality programme that should include daily contact with a teacher. Pupils without suitable internet access should be provided with printed resources. Many children, including those with special educational needs (SEN), may need additional support with remote learning.

Schools will not have to provide remote learning if parents decide to keep their child at home, for example if they believe it is unsafe to send them in.

My child's behaviour has been very challenging over the last few months because of the changes in routine during the pandemic. I am worried that when he returns to school in September this behaviour may continue. Can the school exclude him?

Schools can use disciplinary measures, such as exclusion for behaviour that is disruptive. Any exclusion must be formally recorded and permanent exclusion should be a last resort.

If disruptive behaviour is related to a child's SEN or disability, the school should first take action to identify and address the underlying cause of the behaviour.

Government guidance says that schools should consider any challenging behaviours or social or emotional challenges arising as a response to the lockdown and offer additional support, including specialist support and phased returns where needed.

Some children and young people with SEND (whether with EHC plans or on SEN support) will need specific help and preparation for the changes to routine that these measures will involve, so staff should plan to meet these needs, for example using social stories.

See our webpage for further information about school exclusion and your rights in this situation.

Over the last few months my child's therapies have been stopped as they were given in school. Should I expect the sessions to continue as usual once he returns in September?

Your child should continue to receive their support. Specialists, therapists, clinicians and other support staff for pupils with SEND should provide interventions as usual. Where the health or education support is specified in an EHC plan, it must be provided.

My child's school was struggling to meet my child's SEN before lockdown and I fear the situation may now be even worse - is there anything I can do about this?

If your child has an EHC plan, an early or emergency review may be needed to decide if you child needs more support or a different kind of support. If your child does not have an EHC plan, the school must do everything they can to put in place the extra help they need. See our webpage on getting extra help in school and seek further advice from our helpline if you need.

My child produces a lot of saliva because of their medical condition and the school say she cannot return in September as they are worried about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Some pupils with complex needs will not be able to maintain the same hygiene as their peers. Guidance is clear that this is not a reason to stop them from having face to face education.

Risk assessments should be carried out by the school and should involve parents. The purpose of the risk assessment is to consider how to support the pupil and the staff working with them.

My year seven child doesn't have a placement at a secondary school this September because my local authority says coronavirus has delayed the process. I expressed a preference for a school back in November.

The regulations have been amended to allow for flexibility in timescales where delays are due to Covid-19. However, this does not apply to processes which should have finished before 1 May. The deadline for amending a final EHC plan was 15 February. See our page on EHC Plans and school admissions and seek advice from our helpline about the next steps in your situation.

My child is starting secondary school in September. They usually have a transition day(s) to help them get used to it but of course this year this has not happened due to Covid-19. What can I do to help them with this big change?

Some of the suggestions below might be applicable to this question too.

My child has ADHD and severe anxiety, and I usually take him into the class, but the school have said due to Covid-19, I have to leave him at the school gate and cannot enter the school premises from September?

Disabled children and young people including autistic children, those with learning disabilities, ADHD or a PDA profile may find the return to school especially difficult.

It is important to share your worries with the school as soon as you can and agree a plan to ease you child's return to school and help them understand and cope with the changes.

  • If the school does not agree to this, discuss other adjustments which might help your child. For example you may be allowed to bring your child in at a different start time or to a different entrance.

Support from Contact

Listen back to our webinar on managing behaviour and anxiety

With Dionne Hollis (Occupational Therapist) and Stephanie Carr (Speech and Language Therapist) on support strategies for managing behaviour and anxiety

Listen again to our webinar on your child's legal rights 

Barristers Steve Broach and Polly Sweeney talk us through the  legal rights of children and young people with special educational needs returning to School in September.

Virtual parent workshops

Our popular free workshops programme is now online. Topics include: Encouraging Positive Behaviour, Wellbeing for you, and Managing your child's sleep. Visit our family workshops page for upcoming dates.

Listening Ear service

Our 'Listening Ear' service which provides free 1-1 support for parents via a telephone appointment with one our family support advisers, at a time that suits you. We can help with emotional support, strategies for reducing your child's anxiety and challenging behaviour or help you with structuring the day.  Visit EventBrite for upcoming timeslots.

You may find our information and parent guides on helping your child sleep and understanding your child's behaviour, packed with hints and tips, helpful at this time.

Lenny and Lily Return to School