Revised Supplementary Guidance for Special Schools in Northern Ireland – August 2021

Purpose of the guidance

The information in this guidance is intended to replace the supplement that issued in January 2021. As with that guidance, this document has been informed by the scientific and public health advice available at the time of writing and should be read and applied in conjunction with the latest public health guidance available. Given the changing scientific and public health environment, DE may be required to update this guidance in line with the latest advice and as such this should be treated as ‘agile’ guidance in the current context.

It provides guidance on how special schools in Northern Ireland can operate in an ongoing COVID-19 environment, with the aim of ensuring broad consistency and equity across local areas, but is sufficiently flexible to allow special schools and staff to adopt approaches that best suit their and their pupil needs.

The PHA COVID-19 bulletins provide the most up-to-date data to support staff discussions and risk assessments, and provide a level of context in relation to the epidemiology across schools.

The Education Authority (EA) can provide support in relation to the completion of Risk Assessments through a designated EA Health & Safety Officer:

Locality East Brendan O'Reilly 
Locality South West Clare Caldwell 
Locality North Gillian Sterritt 

Key messages from PHA data include a number of public health measures to mitigate the risk of transmission in schools and Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) available eg: social distancing; PPE; cleaning regimes which are proven very effective when implemented correctly.

The Contingency Framework (December 2020) sets out the expectations on how vulnerable children and young people should be supported in the event that schools and education settings are directly impacted by restrictions put in place as part of a COVID-19 response.

Special schools must work closely with the EA prior to making operational decisions which may reduce provision to ensure all possible actions / mitigations have been explored and exhausted, and should seek advice and direction from the PHA where relevant.  Schools are advised to record decisions and reductions in provision, where unavoidable and should be kept to the shortest period as possible and reviewed weekly.

The EA will provide details directly to special schools around indemnity in the event that there is an adverse incident in school.

Special schools should also engage with EA Special Schools Support Officers and their COVID-19 Link Officer (CoLO) around staffing challenges created by COVID-19 related health issues, and any/or other medical or mental health issues present amongst their workforce. 

Contact Details for EA Support Officers:

EA Educational Welfare Officers are also available to provide support.

Please liaise as necessary with relevant Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) staff if you have any queries in the respective areas that already support and provide sessional input to your school e.g.. CCN, AHPs etc.

If you have any queries that require regional direction in relation to identification of contacts, or clinical issues pertaining to the asymptomatic testing programme, please contact PHA Education Cell, which operates daily with consultant oversight, or the PHA/HSCB personnel outlined below who will attempt to address your query or signpost to relevant Trust colleagues;

Mitigating Measures

It is expected that special schools will continue to make every endeavour to minimise the risks of virus transmission by implementing the mitigating measures referenced in DE guidance and following public health advice.  Any specific queries in relation to mitigation that need to be considered should be referred to the EA Support Officers.  For questions relating to risk assessment of positive cases, or the LAMP testing programme, contact the PHA Educational Support Cell at  

Staffing/ support staff shortages

The EA have support in place for special schools to check availability of teaching staff via NISTR and also a new database for emergency Classroom Assistant / Support Staff cover. These can be accessed by contacting the dedicated HR team for emergency resourcing at

Managing media enquiries

In the event of media enquiries, in the first instance contact the EA Campaigns & Media Officer (079 7170 3527) who can provide assistance in handling the query.

Please also then notify the DE Press Office via email

Managing Trade Union enquiries

In the event of Trade Union enquiries, Principals should contact the EA Support Officer in the first instance.

School survey

The School Survey will continue to be circulated on a weekly basis in order to ensure that both EA and DE are aware of emerging issues and to support contingency planning, it is critical that this is completed as requested.  It is proposed to continue with the collection of weekly attendance data, however this will remain under review and subject to the public health situation.

Attendance at school – Children & Young People

Where parents choose not to send their child to school

SIMS code: For pupils in special schools where agreement has been reached between school and parent, code [ “COVID-19 Self-isolating & Learning from Home” (Approved Activity) may be used.

This should be reviewed every 2 weeks.  It is assumed under any “learning at home” scenario that pupils will be learning from home. Where additional support is needed, the EA should be contacted to provide assistance.

Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) individuals

A small number of children may be advised by their clinical team not to attend school, e.g..  children who are receiving cancer treatment or who recently had an organ transplant. These children will receive advice from their Paediatricians/Medical Consultant who will consider each case individually and some Paediatricians/Medical Consultants may issue relevant CEV letters to parents.   If a family receives such a letter, it would be useful for schools if the family could share a copy to be retained for their records.

The vast majority of these children would routinely be advised not to attend school even outside pandemic period due to the risk of infections other than COVID-19.

SIMS code: For Pupils learning at home – Code ] (Approved Activity) should be used.

It is important that schools update SIMS in a timely, accurate and complete manner. Any queries please contact

Emergency response for CEV / Medically Challenged Children & Young People

The PHA have provided assurance that NI Ambulance Service and Critical Care remains a priority and that any child or young person who requires a ‘blue light’ response, will be attended to as per the usual procedures.

EA Pupil Support Services

EA Pupil Support Services remain fully operational, providing a blended approach of remote and in-person support, for the most urgent cases of assessment or support, if required. 

Contact with individuals who are unwell

If anyone, staff or pupil, is displaying any COVID-19 symptoms they must not attend school, they should self-isolate and seek a PCR test.

Individuals with COVID-19 symptoms, and anyone else who lives in their household (for example, siblings) should self-isolate while the symptomatic individual awaits their result of their PCR test. If this PCR test is positive, the person will self-isolate for 10 days from symptom onset.  Guidance on self-isolation for contacts of positive cases is changing and may differ depending on vaccination status.  The PHA contact tracing service will advise the household on the current guidance.  If the symptomatic person’s PCR result is negative, the household can leave self-isolation provided they are asymptomatic. The symptomatic individual can leave self-isolation if they have a negative test and have been fever free for 48 hours.

In School Testing

It is anticipated that weekly asymptomatic testing for special school staff and pupils will continue in the new academic year, further information will be provided in due course by the EA.


The EA will continue to work with schools in terms of procuring suitable and robust PPE for staff and any issues around the supply order should be raised with the EA for resolution. 

Information is available on the EA website on the correct procedures for donning and doffing of PPE.

Special schools are asked to continue to work closely with the EA, PHA and HSCTs with regards to the particular arrangements required for the small number of pupils who require Aerosol Generating Procedures (AGP).

As part of a child’s care including meeting the requirements outlined in the child’s statement of special educational needs, it may be necessary for HSCT staff to visit schools. HSCT staff will be wearing appropriate PPE in line with HSCT policy and will work within DE and the school’s COVID-19 management arrangements

School Transport

Further information on transport to special schools is available in the Home to school transport section.

Face coverings in schools for deaf Children and Young People

The EA’s Sensory Service has provided information and advice on the impact of wearing face coverings in schools for deaf children and young people [Annex A].

Social distancing

Social distancing of 2m remains a key aspect of measures to be taken in school to mitigate the risks of virus transmission.  However, it is appreciated that this may be difficult for staff due to the regular physical contact required with pupils attending special schools and the assistance required at times from other adults. Special schools should consider how best to implement these measures taking into consideration the needs of the pupils and the support provided to them.

Principals are asked to reinforce the message that social distancing of 2m should remain in place between adults and as far as possible between adults and pupils as is practical where physical capacity, curriculum delivery and pupil care permit.

Staff should be encouraged to wear face coverings where they cannot safely socially distance (i.e.. under 2m) and any staff who wish to wear a face covering at other times are free to do so, however they are not recommended for routine use in classrooms generally. Outside of the classroom setting, where a 2m distance cannot be maintained from other persons either indoors or outdoors on a school side, all adults should be encouraged to wear a face covering.  This includes all adults visiting the school site.

In the event of a staff member testing positive for COVID-19, a face covering would not exempt other staff from being a close contact if social distancing was breached and may result in the requirement to self-isolate for 10 days. The PHA Education Cell and the EA should be advised.

For children and young people in special schools with the most complex additional support needs, schools should involve lead professionals and parents to decide how best to continue supporting them.

Protective bubbles

The Executive decided that from 16 August, schools are no longer required to operate a system of formal protective bubbles.

This aligns with the Executive’s Pathway Out of Restrictions which seeks to remove restrictions as soon as it is considered safe to do so. 

Although the use of formal bubbles is no longer required in schools, the need for schools to continue to support effective contact tracing means that schools are asked to maintain a cautious and measured approach that still seeks to maximise the time where pupils are within a consistent group of pupils.

It will be for each school to determine if they wish to continue to use some/all of the principles of bubbles that they will have used during the 2020-21 year, particularly if they believe that they have proved effective in mitigating virus transmission and that pupils’ ability to learn is not unduly impacted. The lower levels of risk associated with activities taking place outdoors means that if a school wishes to retain the use or partial use of bubbles indoors, it may not be necessary to do so outdoors.

It is anticipated that the removal of the requirement to use formal bubbles will allow for greater flexibility and opportunity for pupils to engage with peers from outside their own class and also means that schools should no longer need to provide a classroom based lunch service.

Without the use of formal bubbles, schools should still seek to support the PHA’s contact tracing, by encouraging pupils to remain within a consistent group of pupils wherever possible, only undertaking larger gatherings of pupils where it is essential and considering whether any local measures could support this aim such as use of fixed seating plans in classrooms.


The DE COVID-19 Guidance for Education Settings (December 2020) provides detailed information on cleaning and hygiene. Continued communications between schools and parents may help to emphasise these issues and to build up a level of understanding and routine application by parents with regard to cleaning of equipment routinely used by their children and brought into school, e.g.. wheelchairs. Special schools should not hesitate to contact EA for additional support in relation to cleaning if required.  Special schools should not hesitate to contact EA for additional support in relation to cleaning if required by contacting

Additional support for families

The Department for Communities (DfC) has allocated additional funding to Councils to support community and volunteer organisations providing food and other essential items.  Anyone in need, should contact the COVID-19 19 Community Helpline on Freephone 0808 802 0020, text ACTION to 81025, or email  who will put the individual into contact with suitable local support services.

Engagement with Special Schools Strategic Leadership Group (SSSLG)

The Department has put in place regular meetings with the SSSLG and should any staff have a query, they should liaise with a member of the SSSLG, to allow issues to be addressed at the next meeting (or sooner if urgent).  The Department, the EA and the PHA will continue to work with the SSSLG to develop additional measures, where possible, to further mitigate the risk of the transmission of COVID-19 within special schools.

EA Sensory Service


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