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Publication - Advice and guidance

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

Guidance for opening schools in April 2021.

78 page PDF

1.2 MB

78 page PDF

1.2 MB

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

78 page PDF

1.2 MB


This guidance was developed to support a safe 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 continuing safe implementation of a full-time 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.

In planning for the anticipated full-time return to school for all children and young people from 12 April 2021, it has been decided to bring all the schools guidance back into this revised and updated reducing risks guidance to give schools and local authorities a single point of reference.

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

This guidance reflects the revised Coronavirus (COVID-19): Strategic Framework update – February 2021 (herein the ‘Strategic Framework’) published on 23 February and the First Minister’s statement to the Scottish Parliament on 16 March on plans for the easing of restrictions in Scotland.  It applies Scotland-wide and it is anticipated that it will do so until the proposed return to the levels approach from 26 April.

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

It is anticipated that children and young people will have full-time, in-school learning after the Easter break.  Primary schools have already been open on this basis since 15 March. Some learners who may be considered to be vulnerable, including children and young people with additional support needs, may have been attending school since 5 January, including those attending special schools and enhanced support provision. All secondary learners will return to full-time schooling after Easter, subject to continued suppression of the virus. This will involve 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 non-teaching 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.

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

Temporary lockdown 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. School pupils returning to college must be included within the current 5% limit on the numbers of students on campus for in-person teaching. 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: 24 Mar 2021 Last updated: 8 Apr 2021 -