Back to school – frequently asked questions (England)

13 mins read

Schools and colleges in England have been open full time for pupils since March.  

Attendance is mandatory for children of compulsory school age (five-16) unless they are shielding on medical advice, self- isolating because they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, or in quarantine. Schools must continue with protective measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus.

On this page, our education team have put together answers to some of the frequently asked questions on our helpline.

In this article


I’m worried about coronavirus. Can I keep my child at home until I’m sure school is safe?

Your worries are normal. Discuss any concerns with your child’s teachers and ask them to reassure you about the safety measures the school has in place.

However, it’s important to be aware that this is not a valid reason to keep your child off school. School attendance law was back in force from 8 March, and so it is your legal duty to make sure that your child attends their school if they are of compulsory school age (five-16). Otherwise you risk a fine or further action.

For more information, see our webpage about school attendance.

My child is clinically extremely vulnerable and has been shielding at home. Do they have to go back to school?

The Department for Education (DfE) updated its schools coronavirus operations guidance for England, which confirms that all CEV pupils should be attending their school from Thursday 1 April.

The only exception is if your child is one of the very small number of pupils under paediatric or other specialist care who have been advised by their GP or clinician not to attend.

What education is my child entitled to if they cannot attend school due to coronavirus?

Schools must provide remote education to pupils who cannot attend for reasons related to coronavirus. This includes pupils who are shielding, self- isolating or in quarantine.

Remote education must include direct teaching in a range of subjects and time to work independently. Your child should receive between three to five hours of a day, depending on their age. This can be delivered in different ways: for example through live or recorded online lessons, textbooks and other printed materials. The lessons should be tailored towards your child’s special educational needs (SEN), and they should receive extra help if they need it.

If your child has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, they are entitled to receive the educational and health provision in it. The support may have to be done differently while your child is learning at home, and the school, local authority and health professionals should work with you to make this happen.

Keeping pupils safe

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

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.

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 should the school support my child with changing, feeding and administering medication, 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.

Masks and testing

Does my child have to wear a mask in school?

In secondary schools, face coverings should be worn in communal areas and in corridors.

New government guidance also recommends that pupils and staff in secondary schools should wear face coverings in classrooms and during activities (excluding PE) unless social distancing can be maintained. This will continue until 17 May.

Primary school pupils do not have to wear face coverings in school.

What if my child can’t wear a mask due to their medical condition?

There are exceptions for children and adults:

  • Who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical impairment or disability, illness or mental health difficulties.
  • Who speak to or provide help to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.

In some cases, transparent masks may be helpful. Guidance does not recommend visors instead of masks as they are not effective in reducing transmission.

Your child should not be denied education because they are not wearing a face covering.

Will my child be tested at school for Covid-19 and what does it involve?

All secondary schools and colleges are offering their pupils and students Covid-19 testing (rapid lateral flow tests) to carry out at home. Rapid testing using lateral flow devices (LFDs) identify pupils and staff who are infectious but do not have any Covid-19 symptoms.

Pupils will be able to return to school after their first negative test. Those who test positive will self-isolate, helping to reduce transmission of the virus and keeping other pupils and students in face-to-face education.

Pupils are asked to test themselves on a twice weekly basis.  Some children and young people may be able to administer the test themselves with adult supervision.

Testing is voluntary for all settings but is strongly encouraged. Primary school pupils are not tested.

Does my child have to be tested? I am worried that it will be too stressful for them

Testing is encouraged and your child’s school or college should work with you to help your child understand and participate in the tests. However, testing is not compulsory, and the school cannot require your child to be tested before being allowed back to school.

Children under 16 will only be tested if a parent or guardian has given informed consent. Young people over 16 can give their own consent unless they lack the mental capacity to do so, in which case you would give consent on their behalf. Even where consent has already been given, no child or young person will be forced to undergo a test if they don’t want to.

There is additional guidance on asymptomatic testing in specialist settings.

Getting to and from school

Will school transport continue as usual?

The government has produced guidance on school transport.

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 are 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 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.

Other topics

My child’s EHC plan was not reviewed last year and he has not received the all the support set out in it. What can I do?

Your child is entitled to receive the support specified in their Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, and additional support and therapies should be provided as usual. Although the rules were relaxed during the first lockdown last year, the law is back in force. This means that local authorities and health services now have a legal duty to make sure the support is provided. 

If it is not possible to deliver the support as specified because of coronavirus, the local authority, education and health professionals should work with you to find an alternative way of doing it. If your child’s does not get the help they are entitled to, complain to your local authority.

Legal timescales and procedures must also be followed for EHC processes such as annual reviews, even if the review meeting has to be held remotely. If your child’s plan has not been properly reviewed in the past year, ask your child’s school and local authority to arrange this. See our webpage on Annual Review for more information on preparing for a review.

What is happening with exams this year?

Key stage 1 and 2 SATs for primary school children in Year 2 and Year 6 have been cancelled this year.

GCSEs and A levels will not take place this summer, and pupils will get grades based on teacher assessment, with guidance from exam boards. Schools and colleges should make reasonable adjustments for disabled students.

Some exams and assessments for vocational and technical qualifications will go ahead this year. If your child may be affected, ask their school or college educational setting for more information.

Resources to help

  • 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.
  • 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.

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 attending school.

You can find the support group for your child’s condition in our A-Z medical directory

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.