Primary schools reopening in March 2021: what to expect
When schools remained closed to the majority of pupils after the Christmas holidays, many of us were thrown into homeschooling again, with little idea when our children would be able to return to the classroom.
Now, schools in England are to fully reopen on March 8.
The decision to reopen schools fully is based on evidence that children who catch coronavirus usually become much less unwell than adults, particularly primary-age children. The vaccination roll-out is also gathering speed and helping to reduce the risk of people becoming seriously ill with Covid.
Here, we explain everything we know about what to expect as schools reopen.
Schools reopening: attendance
From March 8, attendance is compulsory for all children who are registered with a school. The usual attendance rules apply, which means that if your child is off school, you must follow the school’s normal procedures for notifying them of the absence.
Some parents will understandably be anxious about their children returning to school. If you’re concerned, you should discuss this with school staff, who should be able to reassure you about the measures in place to protect pupils and staff. However, if your child is registered with a school and of compulsory school age and you choose not to send them, you may be fined (unless you deregister them to electively home educate).
If your child is unable to go to school because they’re self-isolating, their absence will be marked as authorised and you will not be penalised.
Schools reopening: children who are clinically extremely vulnerable/shielding
You will not be able to keep your child off school because you’re concerned about the risk of them catching Covid unless they are clinically extremely vulnerable/shielding (children who have a member of their household, childcare bubble or support bubble who is clinically extremely vulnerable/shielding should still attend school).
School staff are expected to work onsite as usual, but those who are clinically extremely vulnerable/shielding may work from home.
Schools reopening: social distancing
Schools are advised to do what they can to promote social distancing and minimise contact between children, although the government recognises that pupils may not always be able to distance, for example if they’re too young to understand or if the school layout makes it difficult.
The main way in which schools can do this is by creating ‘bubbles’ of children. In primary schools, each individual class is likely to be a bubble. This means they can avoid contact between bubbles, for example by having separate break and lunchtimes, or using different areas of the school.
Schools should also do what they can to minimise close and face-to-face contact between children within a bubble, such as by having desks facing the front of the class with children sitting side by side rather than face-on.
Staff should try to keep a 2m distance from pupils and avoid touching them, but it’s recognised that this may not be possible.
Large gatherings of children in different bubbles, such as assemblies, should not take place at the moment.
If a pupil within a bubble, or a staff member working with that bubble, tests positive for Covid, the whole bubble may be sent home to self-isolate for 10 days.
Schools reopening: face coverings
Primary school pupils don’t need to wear face coverings, but the government advises that they should worn by staff and adult visitors when social distancing is not possible, such as in corridors and communal areas (but as a rule, not in classrooms).
It’s recommended that if you come onto school premises – even if you’re just dropping your child off or picking them up in the playground – you should wear a face covering unless you’re exempt. Schools may also ask parents who are dropping off or collecting pupils outside the school gates to wear a face covering.
Schools reopening: washing hands
Schools must make sure pupils clean their hands thoroughly with soap and water or hand sanitiser at regular intervals, including:
- When they arrive at school.
- After breaks.
- When they change rooms.
- Before and after eating.
They must also reinforce the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach: children should use a tissue if they cough, sneeze or wipe their nose, put it in the bin straight away, and wash their hands.
Schools reopening: arriving at and collecting from school
Ideally, pupils should walk, cycle, scoot or (if need be) drive to school, but you can use public transport if necessary.
To prevent contact between parents and different bubbles of children, schools might stagger start and end times. They should also encourage adults not to gather at the gates or in the playground.
If you need to go into school, for example to talk to a teacher, you should make an appointment rather than trying to catch them at drop-off or pick-up.
Schools reopening: sharing equipment
Children should have their own set of equipment that is used frequently, including pens, pencils, rulers etc.
However, they should limit the amount of equipment they bring to school each day to:
- Lunch boxes
- Hats and coats
- Mobile phones
There is no reason for school bags not to be allowed, but schools may request that they’re not used, for both hygiene and space reasons (e.g. to prevent children congregating around the pegs).
Classroom resources like books and games can be shared within a bubble but should be cleaned regularly.
If resources are shared between bubbles, for example sports or arts equipment, they must be cleaned before they’re moved between bubbles and left to quarantine for 48 hours (72 hours for plastics).
Your child can take books home, but they should also be cleaned and quarantined before being given to another child.
Schools reopening: ventilation
Good ventilation helps to control the spread of airborne virus particles, so schools will be encouraged to keep windows and doors open as much as possible. To stop children getting cold, they may allow extra warm clothing alongside uniform, such as a fleece over their jumper or cardigan.
Schools reopening: testing
Unlike secondary school students, primary school pupils will not have to take routine Covid tests, but they must self-isolate and book a test if they have any coronavirus symptoms.
School staff will be given a supply of home tests and asked to test themselves twice a week to help to prevent asymptomatic spread.
Schools reopening: self-isolation
The most important thing that schools must do to prevent the spread of Covid is to ensure that pupils, staff and other adults self-isolate when necessary. This means:
- If they have one or more Covid symptoms.
- They have had a positive test.
- If a member of their household, support bubble or childcare bubble has Covid symptoms.
- If they have been told to isolate by Test and Trace.
- If they are required to quarantine after foreign travel.
They must not attend school for a minimum of 10 days from the day after the start of their symptoms, or from the date of their test if they have a positive test with no symptoms.
If a pupil develops coronavirus symptoms at school, they will be isolated from other students straight away and must be collected to begin self-isolation. Other members of the household, childcare or support bubble – including siblings at the same or different schools – must also self-isolate for 10 days.
Schools reopening: school meals
School kitchens are expected to be fully open as usual. Free school meals will be provided for pupils in Reception and Key Stage 1, and those who qualify due to receiving certain benefits.
Schools reopening: remote learning
If a child is self-isolating, they should be provided with home learning: three hours a day for Key Stage 1 and four hours a day for Key Stage 2. This may not be in the same format as in lockdown 3, as teachers may be teaching onsite as well as providing remote learning. For example, they may use more online resources like Oak National Academy rather than live lessons.
Your child will not be expected to learn at home if they are actually unwell.
Schools reopening: school uniform
Schools are encouraged to make pupils wear their normal school uniform, and there’s no need to clean it more often than usual. Your child may be allowed to wear an extra item of clothing like a fleece or jumper to help them stay warm if classroom windows are open.
Schools reopening: clubs
All wraparound care, such as breakfast and after-school clubs, are now allowed to open, although it’s advised that they try to keep children in the same bubbles as they’re in during school hours.
Outdoor extra-curricular clubs like football and netball can also run, but not indoor clubs at the moment.
Individual music, dance and drama lessons, usually taught by external teachers, can now take place with social distancing.
Schools reopening: primary school exams and tests
All primary school tests (the Phonics Screening Check in Year 1, the new Multiplication Tables Check in Year 4, Year 2 SATs and Year 6 SATs, have been cancelled for this academic year, so teachers will make their own assessment of children’s achievement. They can use past papers if they wish.
Schools reopening: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
The guidance for schools reopening and safety measures to be put in place are largely the same in the devolved nations as in England, but return dates are different.
In Scotland, children in P1-P3 returned to school from 22 February. All other primary pupils will return from 15 March.
Children aged three to seven were able to return to school on 22 February, although not in areas where Covid rates are still high. Older primary pupils will return on March 15 as long as rates continue to fall.
Information for Northern Ireland is still undefined, but the earliest that pupils are expected to return to school is March 8. The Education Recovery Plan is also proposing that class sizes are capped at 15 with children attending on a rota basis.
All information about English schools reopening is taken from the Department for Education Schools Coronavirus (Covid-19) operational guidance, Feb 2021, and will be updated as changes occur.