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Returning to school FAQ: what do I need to know?

By Giles Milton (updated Thursday 25 Feb 2021)

Following weeks of remote schooling, UK-wide plans for children to return to face-to-face education have been announced. 

In England, 8 March has been confirmed as the key date, with schools reopening over the week of 8-12 March. But with different rules for different parts of the UK – and with different rules for different age groups within that – the information can be confusing for parents. 

So what do YOU need to know about the return to schools? Does your child HAVE to go? Will there be Covid testing – and will your child need to wear a face covering? What about borrowed devices? And what will happen if schools shut again? 

Parent Zone has waded through the latest information to give you the lowdown on the key information for primary and secondary schools and colleges.

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When can my child go back to school?

In England, a return to schools and colleges begins on 8 March. Your child’s school is allowed to make a decision on a phased return over the week of 8-12 March, with the possibility of different year groups returning on different days. 

In Scotland, younger primary age pupils (P1-3) have gone back to school, as well as exam-age students in secondary school. Other primary pupils are likely to return on 15 March.  

In Wales, younger primary age pupils (Foundation ages) have gone back, with older primary ages returning on 15 March if Covid levels continue to fall – with Secondary age students to follow. 

In Northern Ireland, younger primary pupils (P1-3) will return on 8 March but will return to remote learning early on 22 March, a week ahead of the Easter holidays. Secondary students in exam years 12-14 will return on 22 March. There is no set date for other pupils.

You should stay in touch with your school for further information about when your child should return. This will include a date – which in England may not be 8 March – and potentially staggered start and collection times.

What about Covid-19 testing in schools?

Testing in England has been planned for children in Year 7 and up, who are attending face-to-face education, including SEND and AP schools. 

Secondary students will take three Covid-19 tests in the week they return to classrooms, as well as one home test. Schools and colleges will make a decision on how these tests will happen – so follow your school communications for more information. Students will also be provided with two optional tests to take home each week. 

Primary pupil testing is not currently planned. All primary, secondary and college staff will be given two tests to take home each week.

Will my child have to wear a face covering?

Staff and students at English secondary schools are being advised to wear face coverings in all areas – including classrooms – where social distancing may not be maintained. If your child is in secondary school, check the school website or comms for more information about what is being required. You can also raise concerns with the school office.

In English primary schools, pupils will not be required to wear face coverings. However, staff will be advised to wear face coverings, where appropriate. 

Be aware, all school staff have been advised to be sensitive to pupil and student needs and whether a face covering is appropriate. This may affect SEND pupils and students.

MORE HELP: Explore Parent Zone’s lockdown hub of advice and resources to support parenting during the pandemic

Does my child have to go back to school when it reopens?

The Department for Education has said that it will be mandatory for pupils, with some exceptions, to attend schools in England from the date that they are eligible to return. 

It will be a parent’s legal duty to ensure that their child attends. The ability for a school or local authority to impose sanctions for non-attendance – including fines – will be reinstated.

The exception to this is the shielding patients list. Those children who are confirmed as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) are advised to, “shield and stay at home as much as possible until further notice”. 

If you are not sure, check with your school to confirm the date from which your child should attend. If you have any problems or concerns, contact your school office who will be able to advise further. 

Can my child go back to school before 8 March?

Schools in England remain largely closed until 8 March – but they are open for children of critical workers and for children and young people classed as ‘vulnerable’. This includes alternative provision (AP) and SEND schools.

Children and young people with at least one parent who is a critical worker can go to school if required. But ‘critical worker’ doesn’t just mean an NHS nurse on the Covid-19 frontline. It also includes parents working in many aspects of health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food (from production to retail), utilities, transport, and more. Check the Department for Education’s advice or speak to your school for clarification.

Be aware, you cannot simply send your child but must instead speak to your school to confirm a place. Before 8 March in England, it is not compulsory for your child to attend school if you or a partner is a critical worker.

There are also many definitions of a ‘vulnerable child or young person’. This now includes, ‘those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home – for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study’.

If you are struggling to access technology, you can ask your school for the loan of a device. If this is not possible – or if your home environment is affecting learning as described above – your child has a right to an alternative, which may include face-to-face education.

What’s happening with exams?

The government has confirmed that in England there will be no GCSEs or A-Level exams this summer. Results will be based on teacher-assessed grades based on mock exams, coursework and essays – rather than using an algorithm, which proved highly unpopular last summer.

Schools will have the option to use test papers – or "mini exams" – which can also inform teachers about final grades.These will be supplied to schools before the Easter holidays and will need to be completed by 18 June, if a school decides to use them.

Results will be published earlier than usual, with A-Level results on 10 August and GCSEs on 12 August – allowing more time for appeals.

There will also be no SAT exams for primary children in Years 2 and 6 – and these will be replaced by teacher assessments. Vocational qualifications (VTQs) will be based on teacher grade, except for qualifications requiring practical skills – some of which will go ahead in a Covid-safe way. Results for these will be released in the week of 9 August. 

If you have further questions or concerns, speak to your school for more information.

Will I have to give a borrowed device back when my child’s school reopens?

There is no government guidance on this. At this moment, it will depend on your child’s school – and they may be in contact to advise you further. 

If you are not sure or concerned, contact the school office for more support and advice.

What if my child’s school closes again – or my child has to self-isolate?

If there are further closures – or your child is not able to attend – schools will have a duty to continue to deliver remote education effectively. In the event of this, your child’s school will contact you with more information. 

It will also be a school’s duty to provide access to remote education. If you are concerned by a lack of access to technology, your child’s school may also be able to arrange the loan of a school laptop or device if required. 

If your child doesn’t have access, you can make a request to your school for a loan. 

Parents cannot directly apply for devices from the government but schools are able to apply for additional tech to support pupils and students who are without. The scheme is devised for Years 3 to 11 (ages 7-16), but infant schools (Reception to Year 2, ages 4-6) are not currently able to apply. However, some primary schools may still independently choose to loan additional devices to KS1 pupils.

What if we don’t have broadband connection or enough mobile data for remote learning?

You are entitled to support with internet access for your child’s education during lockdown. Two schemes are available, and your child could qualify for one of them if they are not in face-to-face education, you don’t have fixed broadband at home, and you cannot afford additional data.

The first scheme provides temporary data increases for mobile devices during this period on some networks – including EE, O2, Sky Mobile, SMARTY, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.

It’s available for children in Years 3 to 11 (ages 7 to 16), but the request needs to be made by the school, rather than the parent – so if you think you might qualify, speak to your child’s school.

For children in Years 3 to 13 (ages 7 to 18), schools can alternatively apply for 4G wireless routers, and parents should again speak to their school if they have the need.

Aside from that, some data providers have also made it free to access educational sites – such as BBC Bitesize for EE, BT Mobile and PlusNet Mobile customers. Check with your provider.

Image: HarryRendón/


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