Millions of young people are preparing to return to the classroom for the new academic year starting this September, and things are set to work a little differently than before the summer holidays.
With most coronavirus restrictions now dropped in the UK, here’s a look at some of the key points around restrictions in educational settings…
Will there be social distancing or bubbles?
Most schools have worked with a system of bubbles during the pandemic, whereby certain classes or entire year groups are separated from others in order to try and reduce the risk of any COVID-19 outbreaks spreading to others. In many educational settings, social distancing measures have also been in place in communal areas.
In line with wider government guidance, schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will no longer have to enforce social distancing or bubble-type systems in this new academic year. It will be up to individual schools whether they want to put mitigation measures in place, though measures can be expected to be much relaxed compared to before the summer, as is now the case in most other settings throughout the UK.
In Scotland, where schools have already returned, staff must remain at least 1m away from other staff and pupils for the time being.
Will young people and/or staff have to wear face coverings?
There is a bit of a mixed picture on face-covering rules as schools return.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, face coverings are still required as per rules before the summer holidays, though these rules may change later this year. Meanwhile, in England and Wales, face coverings will only be recommended in crowded spaces, such as on school transport. In England, wearing face coverings on public transport is only advice, whereas it is a legal requirement in Wales for everyone aged 11 and over, unless an exemption applies.
How about testing and isolating?
Pupils that test positive for COVID-19 will have to isolate at home for 10 days. Any close contacts will be asked to take a PCR test, though unlike before the summer holidays, only those who test positive for the virus will actually need to isolate.
Pupils in England will be invited to take two lateral-flow tests at school before term starts, while pupils in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be invited to take tests at home or tests in the community before returning to the classroom. The testing ahead of the start of term means that some schools may stagger the return of pupils more than in some previous years.
Anyone in the UK can access twice-weekly lateral flow tests, including school children, and are encouraged to continue to take these.
What about cleaning and ventilation?
Most schools will have their own procedures in place to help reduce the risk of an outbreak and control one if it does occur. While there is no legal requirement for it, some schools may decide to clean rooms on a more regular basis than before the pandemic.
In Wales, new technology is to be supplied to schools to help disinfect classrooms quickly, while a number of carbon dioxide monitors are set to be provided to schools in England and Wales from September to help monitor air quality and look out for poor conditions in which viruses could thrive.
Will teachers and/or pupils be vaccinated?
There is no legal requirement for teachers or school-age children to be vaccinated against COVID-19, though it is advised for those who are eligible.
The vast majority of people in the UK aged 16 or over have been vaccinated against COVID-19, with over 88% having received at least one vaccine dose and nearly 79% having received two doses.
16 and 17 year-olds are currently being encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19 – you can find out which young people are eligible for the jab in our explainer here.
Can school trips be organised and attended?
Domestic, daytime school trips have been permitted again in England since April 2021.
Advice for schools in England regarding international trips reads, “From the start of the new school term, you can go on international visits that have previously been deferred or postponed and organise new international visits for the future.” Trips overseas will though be subject to the travel list rules, which can change over time and sometimes at short notice.
What will rules be like at other institutions, such as universities?
Universities in the UK are autonomous institutions, meaning that their own management has control over many parts of how they operate. The Government has urged universities to resume face-to-face teaching and welcome students back to campuses as normal.
However, some universities have indicated that they will not resume face-to-face teaching, and will instead deliver some or all content for different courses online. Other universities have set out policies on social distancing and the wearing of face coverings in seminar rooms – the exact rules are likely to differ by univeristy.