Section 1: Introduction

Introduction to Guidance for Schools and Educational Settings in Northern Ireland

This guidance was originally developed for education settings, to support the safe operations of schools, pre-schools, youth services and other settings. The term “school” is used throughout for brevity. It should be considered alongside additional operational guidance which will be provided by the Education Authority (EA) before the start of term. It will be continue to be updated to reflect the current public health position.

The aims of this guidance are to:

  • Support schools to provide the best possible education and service to children and young people while reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the setting
  • provide clarity with regard to practical approaches for the safe operation of schools; and
  • promote consistency of approach across Northern Ireland, whilst ensuring appropriate local flexibility for education settings and staff.

The guidance has been developed by the Department of Education (DE) in co-operation with school leaders. Ongoing engagement with educational practitioners and trades unions has also taken place over the course of the pandemic and will continue going forward. 

The guidance has also been informed by advice provided by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor based on the scientific and public health advice available at the time of writing. It does not seek to duplicate this public health advice and will provide appropriate links to enable readers to access it. It should be read and applied in conjunction with the latest public health guidance available on the nidirect website.

Where this guidance states that Managing Authorities and schools:

  • “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 and adaptations are likely.
  • “should”, “must” or “strongly recommended” - it is expected that schools will implement these changes.

Nothing in this guidance affects the legal obligations of education settings with regard to health and safety and public health. Education settings 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 COVID-19 from the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland. In the event of any conflict between any applicable legislation (including health and safety legislation) and this guidance, the applicable legislation must prevail.

Key COVID-19 Symptoms

Schools should ensure they are familiar with the latest information on measures to limit the spread of COIVD-19 including the symptoms and steps to be taken when an individual or individuals in a school are identified as being confirmed cases of COVID-19. These are regularly updated and are detailed on the PHA website.

Use of the Guidance

The guidance within this document is divided into three broad headings:

  • Reduction of Virus Transmission.
  • Identification and Response to Positive Cases.
  • Operations.

This guidance provides an overarching framework for schools and education settings in Northern Ireland, with the aim of ensuring broad consistency and equity across local areas. It has been developed with input from a wide range of sectoral experts, both in the health and education sectors including the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and should be read in conjunction with the wider COVID-19 related guidance issued by the Public Health Agency (PHA).

This guidance will be kept under review to keep abreast of updates from advice provided by the PHA and NI Executive restrictions and regulations.

For further advice and support on any aspect of this guidance principals should contact their Cross Organisational Link Officer, or the COVID-19 section of the EA website. The Cross Organisational Link Officer will act as the lead contact to ensure that queries are dealt with efficiently.

Risk Assessments

In accordance with relevant legislation and guidance, trades unions have been consulted on and involved in the development of EA COVID risk assessment templates for use across schools.

Risk assessments of individual settings should be undertaken to ensure that health and safety legislation and guidance is fully adhered to. These should be kept simple and accessible. It is a legal requirement that employers must consult with the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union or, if there isn’t one, a representative chosen by staff. As an employer, you cannot decide who the representative will be. To support this, the EA has developed good practice risk assessments which have been shared across education settings via existing communication channels.

Risk Assessments must be reviewed regularly and updated every time there is a significant change in circumstance, including where changes to the DE guidance apply. Risk Assessments for schools that are not COVID-specific can be found on the EA website using these links: 

Pupil Behaviour

Schools should keep their pupil behaviour policies under review to ensure that they allow appropriate compliance with the required mitigations.

Parental Support

Parents have a key role in making schools safe and should continue to:

  • Promote compliance with COVID-19 guidance including in schools and on both public transport and dedicated school transport including explaining the importance of doing so to their child.
  • Ensure compliance with PHA guidance of child isolating due to:
    • The child having COVID-19 symptoms, in which case parents should book a PCR test and support the child to isolate with close contacts of the child following PHA protocols for self-isolation.
    • The child being identified as a close contact, either as a household member of a symptomatic or confirmed case, or as a close contact of a case not in their household.
    • The child having returned to Northern Ireland from another country and isolating in line with NI Direct Travel advice and regulations.

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