What are the Covid rules in schools as pupils return for the autumn term?

Pupils are required to wear masks in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in England and Wales Credit: PA

With schools across the UK either already welcoming students back or preparing to start their term, many are fearful the increased mixing will lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases - so what are the rules in place to prevent infection?

Experts from within the government and outside have said the return of pupils to schools - the only large cohort of unvaccinated people left in the country - will lead to an inevitable large rise in cases.

In a document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group, experts said the vaccine rollout – which currently extends only one dose to 16-year-olds and above – will have made “almost no difference” to many pupils.

Social distancing is still in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Credit: PA

In Scotland, where schools went back last week, a sharp rise in cases has already been attributed to pupils returning to their desks.

Despite this, the bubble system of mass self-isolation for one positive Covid case, which caused havoc for schools across the country at the end of the last term, has been scrapped and most other strict rules have been replaced with guidelines.

So what will the situation be for pupils when they return to their desks for the autumn term?

Bubbles and social distancing

In all areas of the UK, bubbles are no longer required meaning the end of entire year groups being forced to self-isolate because of a single Covid-19 case.

This also means assemblies can return, the restrictions on mixing during breaks have gone and social distancing requirements have been eased.

Pupils are being encouraged to take a test twice a week Credit: PA

In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, there is still an emphasis on social distancing where possible.

English schools are being asked to be prepared to reintroduce bubbles if necessary.


The government is trying to persuade parents, secondary school pupils and college students to take part in voluntary asymptomatic Covid-19 testing.

England's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said the easing of restrictions and the return of schooling which is “closer to normality” is welcome but warned that parents and children should not “throw caution to the wind” and encouraged pupils to take a test twice a week.

England's Department for Education (DfE) guidance states that secondary school and college students in England should be tested twice on-site on their return, with lateral flow tests carried out between three and five days apart.

The guidance then says pupils should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September when the policy will be reviewed.

In England, the government will also take over all test and trace requirements from schools and the NHS will contact the affected family directly, rather than going through the school.

Only if the pupil themselves tests positive for Covid will they need to self-isolate and miss school.


Pupils in England and Wales are no longer required to wear masks on-site, although some schools have chosen to keep some mask requirements.

With the prediction that cases will rise when pupils will return, the leader of the largest teaching union in the UK has called on Mr Williamson to support schools to “consider face coverings from day one of term” alongside social distancing where possible.Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said current safety requirements are “not sufficient” to prevent a rise in cases.

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The government still advises people to wear masks on public transport.

If a local area sees a large increase in cases then the regional health director may advise that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, face coverings are still required throughout the school day.

Hygiene and ventilation

With most mandatory requirements now gone, the government has increased its emphasis on optional guidance, particularly around hygiene.

The new guidance advises regular and thorough hand washing as well as keeping the school as clean as possible.

Doing as much as possible to increase ventilation - particularly when parents are going to in to school buildings - is also being encouraged.


A first Covid-19 vaccine dose is currently being offered to all 16 and 17-year-olds, and 12 to 15-year-olds with specific underlying health conditions and those who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed.Although the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has yet to advise on broadening the rollout to all 12-15 year olds the government is drawing up plans to carry it out if they do.

The NHS is preparing to deliver a school-based programme that will be supplemented with other delivery models where necessary to ensure full coverage across the country.