Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on reducing the risks in schools

Guidance to help schools ensure a low-risk environment for learning and teaching.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on reducing the risks in schools


This guidance was developed to support a low risk return to school for all children, young people and staff in August 2020. It was regularly updated during the 2020 autumn term to support the return to school. 

Given the developments in the path of the virus in December 2020 it was decided however that most children and young people should move to remote learning from the beginning of January 2021.  Separate, supplementary guidance was published in December to help schools and local authorities support vulnerable children and young people and the children of key workers in school, while providing remote learning for all other learners.  That supplementary guidance was updated on 21 January, 16 February and 8 March.

For the full-time return to school for all children and young people from 12 April 2021, the schools guidance was brought together here to give schools and local authorities a single point of reference.

From 17 May 2021, schools and local authorities will, according to local circumstances, be in Level 1, 2 or 3.  The protective measure and mitigations set out in this guidance will remain in place for all schools at this time.  Different arrangements will apply in relation to PE and the expressive arts and these are described in the chapter called Changes from 17 May.

We know there remains anxiety among some staff about being in school and, as with any interaction in society, we cannot eliminate risk entirely.  The Scottish Government is clear, however, that schools being open full-time is a priority – it is hugely important for the educational and developmental wellbeing of children and young people.

It is imperative therefore that schools and local authorities continue to take a precautionary approach.  Every step should be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in schools.  The mitigations set out in this guidance should be strictly adhered to. 

All school staff and secondary aged learners are encouraged to participate in the asymptomatic testing programme. Quick and decisive action should be taken when positive cases are identified among children, young people and staff.

The Education Recovery Group continues to monitor carefully the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 in Scotland and in school communities and this guidance will be kept under review and updated when necessary. 

Purpose of this guidance

The guidance applies to all local authorities and schools (primary/secondary/special/school hostels/residential) under their management. Local authorities should ensure that any external organisations involved in delivering services in schools (e.g. contracted facilities management services) are required to follow this guidance. It should also be used by grant-aided schools and independent schools to support their recovery efforts. Please read the supplementary guidance for residential children’s house, residential schools, secure care facilities and residential respite/short break services for children and young people, developed in partnership with relevant stakeholders.  COVID-19 guidance for universities, colleges and student accommodation providers may also be relevant to some.

Recognising its specific context, separate guidance for the Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) and childcare sector has been developed. There is also specific guidance for childminders and for School-aged childcare.  Guidance for the Community Learning and Development Sector is also available.

Nothing in this guidance affects the legal obligations of local authorities with regard to health and safety, public health and their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. Local authorities must continue to adhere to all such duties when implementing this guidance. Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, they must have regard to the advice relating to coronavirus from the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

Local authorities and schools should exercise their judgement when implementing this guidance, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their children, young people and staff taking into account local circumstances.  Where this guidance states that local authorities and schools:

  • “should” do something, there is a clear expectation, agreed by all key partners, that it should be done.
  • “may” or “may wish” to do something, the relevant sections have been included as examples of relevant practice that can be considered if appropriate. Local variations are likely.

In addition to the implementation of these mitigations, local authorities and schools will also need to be able to adapt to local issues, and specifically to local outbreaks. This will closely involve local authorities and local Public Health Teams.

There may be circumstances in which, based on clear evidence and public health considerations, or other relevant factors (e.g. minimum staffing requirements) specific schools require either to close, or to implement remote learning for some children and young people, for a defined period of time. All such decisions will continue to be made by local incident management teams working in partnership, and on the independent advice of local Directors of Public Health, who will take full account of school safety and wider public health considerations in line with their statutory duties. Similar decisions may require to be taken by local authorities in conjunction with schools where staffing constraints (e.g. due to self-isolation or shielding) or other matters make such a move unavoidable.

Arrangements for school opening from 12 April

Children and young people, other than those who are shielding, returned to full-time, in-school learning after the Easter break. This involved the removal of strict 2m physical distancing between pupils in secondary schools and these schools and local authorities should consider how, alongside this, they can strengthen other mitigations such as ventilation and the use of outdoor learning.

Attendance in schools will include teaching and support staff who, in the judgement of the local authority and schools, are required to attend in person, this could include student teachers undertaking placement practice; and possibly HEI tutors observing their practice. It may also include staff carrying out key health/dental checks and routine school vaccination programmes.  

Learning in the outdoors

Outdoor activities and learning help to decrease the risk of transmission and improve the physical and mental health and wellbeing of young people. The recent report from the International Council of Education Advisors underlines this further. Education Scotland advice provides that learning outdoors can help learners to continue to connect with one another and the school environment and provide experiences which enhance learning.

Outdoor learning should be interpreted broadly, to encompass a wide range of experiences and activities including those focused on learner wellbeing as well as specific activities pertaining to curriculum areas and subjects.  Schools should consider what activities will positively draw in their learners. More detailed advice can be found within the dedicated outdoor learning section of this document.  

School age childcare

Regulated school age childcare services have been able to recommence fully since 15 March. Guidance has been published which applies to all providers of Care Inspectorate registered school age childcare services in all sectors – local authority, private and third sectors. This includes breakfast clubs, after-school care and holiday childcare. Organised children’s activities guidance has been published for unregulated clubs and activities provision.  

Senior phase school learners attending college

Guidance for colleges has also been published.  Colleges are now able to prioritise the return of further senior phase school pupils studying at college who require in-person provision now in order to complete or progress. In line with wider college guidance, pupils should only be on campus for the duration of the practical work and should continue to learn remotely for those course elements where this is possible.  



First published: 25 Mar 2021 Last updated: 25 May 2021 -