With the news that everyone will be returning to school/college” from March 8th, the Department for Education has once again issued separate operational guidance for schools and for specialist settings: Additional operational guidance for special schools, special post-16 institutions and alternative provision.

Below is a bit of a breakdown of some of the important points that you should be aware of.

1. Attendance

The attendance section in the specialist and alternative settings guidance emphasises that from March 8th, attendance is mandatory for all, unless they receive a positive test result or have to self-isolate.

It is vital for pupils and students to attend school or college to minimise, as far as possible, the longer-term impact of the pandemic on their education, wellbeing and wider development. The usual rules on school attendance apply to all pupils including:

– parents’ duty to secure their child’s regular attendance at school (where the child is a registered pupil at school, and they are of compulsory school age)

– the ability to issue sanctions, including fixed penalty notices in line with local authorities’ codes of conduct

Where pupils are not able to attend school, as they are following clinical or public health advice related to coronavirus (COVID-19), the absence will not be penalised.

From 8 March we expect that every 16 to 19 student (or 19 to 25 with an EHCP) undertakes the majority of their planned hours on site. Special post-16 institutions should continue to allow students to attend as per their usual timetable.

Note this doesn’t say if a child is difficult to manage or has tricky needs, it’s okay to tell their parents to keep them at home and promptly forget about them.

It does advise that if schools are short-staffed, they should ask their LA or Academy Trust for help and should “continue to work collaboratively with families to agree an approach that is in the child or young person’s best interests.”

2. Attendance in residential and hospital settings

In specialist residential settings, the guidance for attendance says it is preferable to keep children resident even if full educational provision isn’t possible. If a child/young person does have to go home, then any necessary health and therapy support (including access to medical supplies) should continue to be provided. It also local authorities should keep a register of learners both with EHCPs or going through the EHCP assessment process, who’ve been sent home due to COVID-related issues. “The local authority should also contact the family frequently to ensure that risks are being managed and to establish whether additional support is necessary and how that will be delivered.

Meanwhile, if your child is in a hospital school or CAMHS unit, the instruction is to provide as full a curriculum as the child’s health permits. However, Where it’s not possible to provide face-to-face education for all pupils, for example because of current physical capacity restraints at the hospital, then please use your own risk assessments to prioritise the pupils with the greatest need. Mainstream schools should continue to support their pupils in hospital, including through remote learning support, to minimise the impact of their hospital stay on their education.”

3. Risk Assessments

Risk Assessments or, as we prefer them to be known a “Back to school support plan” should be updated says the government, and maintained as a “living document”. Furthermore, they should not be used to deny in-school education to troublesome children:

Page 27 of guidance

4. EHCP provision and assessments

The guidance emphasises that EHCP provision must be provided.

All therapies and support that would normally be in place for children and young people with EHC plans should be provided, and our focus is on supporting local authorities, health commissioning bodies and education settings to do so. However, there may be times when it becomes more difficult to do so than usual. In collaboration with local authorities and health partners (where applicable), you should work with families to co-produce alternative arrangements for delivering provision. These decisions should be considered on a case-by-case basis which takes account of the needs and circumstances of the child or young person, avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

For assessments or reviews, again, the guidance states that normal expectations are expected, although: “if children or young people are isolating or shielding, it may be more appropriate to gather information electronically and to hold the review by phone or virtually. However, it is important that the assessments and reviews continue to ensure that the child or young person, and their parent and carer, is at the centre of the process. In addition, local authorities must continue to meet their statutory duties to finalise placements for September. It is important that you co-operate in supporting requests about potential placements, providing families with advice and information where requested.

5. Does anyone need to shield?

The advice for pupils who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) is to shield and stay at home as much as possible until further notice. All 16 to 18 year olds with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality will be offered a vaccine in priority group 6 of the vaccination programme.

Schools can ask for proof of shielding status but shouldn’t ask for doctor’s notes if a child is off because they are unwell. If a child lives with someone who is CEV, they should still attend as normal.

Schools are instructed to

  • Provide remote education to pupils who are following guidance not to attend school on-site
  • Offer pastoral support to pupils and students who are self-isolating, shielding or “vulnerable”
  • Work with parents and other organisations to agree the best arrangements for a child who, in “some exceptional circumstances” despite being CEV, their health risks may be outweighed by the wider impact of not being in school to get their normal support. “This might be due to the level of support that they need or their ability to access remote education and additional services such as therapies, as well as the impact on wellbeing for the wider family.”

Where pupils who are self-isolating are “within our definition of vulnerable”, the guidance says schools should notify any social worker involved to agree how best to maintain contact and regular support and ensure they are able to access remote education.

6. Provision of therapies

For learners who have health or therapy provision in their EHCPs, schools are told to collaborate with the relevant health providers to agree appropriate support “in view of the latest and current local public health guidance“. Therapists and other professionals may continue to visit education settings to provide therapies and support, where this is reasonably necessary. This includes when the therapist needs to move between settings. If a child is at home, professionals should work together to agree how the EHCP provision can be delivered, for example in the home or virtually.

Respite care whether residential or in the home can also operate as normal.

7. “Ambitious” remote education delivery for SEND learners

So just in case mandatory attendance doesn’t include you, state schools still have a duty to deliver “suitable remote education and the guidance includes links to relevant information for schools and post-16 settings (page 15 of guidance). Then it says:

For pupils and students with SEND, and those in alternative provision settings, their teachers are best placed to know how their needs can be most effectively met to ensure they continue to make progress if they are not in face-to-face education.

We recognise that some pupils and students with SEND may not be able to access remote education without adult support and so expect you to work with families to deliver an ambitious curriculum appropriate for their level of need. Further details on delivering remote education for children and young people with SEND is set out in Remote Education Good Practice.

You should have systems for checking, daily, whether pupils and students are engaging with their work, and work with families to rapidly identify effective solutions where engagement is a concern.

8. Transport

Transport for those who currently receive it should be in place.

While transport providers should take “all reasonable actions to maximise social distancing where possible“, with transport staff and children over 11 all wearing a mask, unless exempt. It then says “What is practicable will vary according to your particular circumstances.

Importantly, they have included that while some LAs can ask parents to accept personal travel budgets or mileage allowances to take their child to their placement, it must be with the parent’s consent and cannot be insisted on and “accepting a personal payment or mileage allowance will not impact on their eligibility for dedicated school transport in the future.”

9. Testing

Testing remains voluntary but strongly encouraged“. The guidance says settings will have discretion on how to test students as they return to the classroom. For secondaries, they are moving to a home testing model where appropriate, after three onsite tests. “We have given specialist settings flexibility to be able to work with pupils/students and their families to agree the most appropriate way of them participating in twice-weekly testing.” You can find further guidance here. Informed consent is required and a negative test shouldn’t be a requirement for attendance.

10. Masks

Most of the information about masks is left in the main guidance (Page 12). That includes a bit about wearing transparent masks, but not shields alone. However, transparent masks are really expensive compared to a regular mask, and a teacher would need more than one.

Transparent face coverings, which may assist communication with someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate, can also be worn. There is currently very limited evidence regarding the effectiveness or safety of transparent face coverings, but they may be effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Those who rely on visual signals for communication, or communicate with or provide support to such individuals, are currently exempt from any requirement to wear face coverings in schools or in public places.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance

“We are taking this additional precautionary measure for a limited time during this period of high coronavirus (COVID-19) prevalence in the community. These measures will be in place until Easter. As with all measures, we will keep it under review and update guidance at that point.”

You can find the main operational guidance here and the additional specialist settings guidance here. You can also find the Special Needs Jungle remote education resources here and Covonavirus information links.

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