The return to school in January 2021

Last updated 31st December 2020

On Wednesday 30 December, in response to rapidly rising case rates due to the new, more transmissible variant of coronavirus, the Government triggered the education contingency framework and has pushed back the staggered return for secondary schools and colleges by one week. The details set out below are based on the current guidance however, we are aware this is a rapidly changing situation and we will update this page as we receive further information.

CDC is working across its networks including SENDIASS and the DCO/DMO forum to ensure information about the current situation is clear to both professionals and families across a range of agencies. If you have additional questions relating to the guidance or the return to school please contact us at

What does it mean for children and young people who are ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’?

  • The Government has reinstated the shielding guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable groups in tier 4, effective from 20 December.
  • All clinically extremely vulnerable children are advised not to attend education settings in tier 4 areas only.
  • Staff in tier 4 who are clinically extremely vulnerable are advised to work from home and where this is not possible, they should not go into work.
  • All clinically extremely vulnerable pupils/students should continue to attend education settings in tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3. unless they are one of the very small number of pupils/students under paediatric or other specialist care and have been advised by their GP or clinician not to attend an education setting.
  • Where a pupil/student is unable to attend education because they are complying with clinical or public health advice, it is expected that education settings are able to offer them access to remote education.

Key messages for secondary schools and colleges:

All secondary schools and colleges (including special schools and alternative provision) are expected to establish testing and encourage pupils to have a test, but this is not required to allow them to return to school

Armed forces personnel will support directly through planning with schools and colleges.

What does it mean for Special Schools?

All pupils in special schools are able to attend from the week commencing 4 January

  • There is some limited flexibility to stagger returns in these settings where it is necessary to allow special schools to prepare for testing to begin from 11 January

During the week commencing 4 January, all schools with secondary age pupils should:

  • Ensure on-site provision for vulnerable children and young people and children of critical workers
  • Work to set up their testing programme

We are grateful to Matt Rooney, at St Giles School for sharing this example of an approach to mass testing in special school (developed in collaboration with their school community):

“As a school we will be signing up to the national mass testing programme. We believe this will help to remain as safe as possible and open. There is a lot for us to put in to place and we need time to do this properly. We think it is sensible to offer staff testing before all pupils return to school.

We will also offer mass testing (2 swabs, taken 3 days apart) to all staff and to pupils/students over the age of 11, who can administer the test themselves or with minimum levels of prompts and encouragement. We will also work with pupils/students who want to be tested, but cannot physically administer the test themselves, to agree a way forward. 

No pupil/student will be forced to be tested and testing will not take place without parental consent. If your child is over 16 and is competent to make their own decisions, we will work with them and you to agree consent.

We need time to work with NHS partners to better understand the role they will play in the mass testing of pupils with SEND who are not able to test themselves, should this be an option later down the line.

We believe that offering mass testing as a school is an additional way of helping us reducing the risk of the virus in school and our wider communities. We will write separately to you about this.”

You can download a full version of a template letter to parent carers that can be used by special schools here:

What does it mean for Alternative Provision?

All pupils in alternative provision are expected to attend from the week commencing 4 January

Schools will have time in the w/c 4 January to prepare to deliver testing of pupils from 11 January.

During this week, all schools with secondary age pupils should:

  • Ensure on-site provision for vulnerable children and young people and children of critical workers
  • Work to set up their testing programme

What does it mean for Transport?

  • The transport to school and other places of education guidance remains in place.
  • Those involved in the provision of home to school or college transport must do all that is reasonably practicable to maximise social distancing where possible and minimise the risk of transmission.
  • Local authorities are not required to uniformly apply social distancing guidelines for public transport on dedicated school or college transport. However, distancing should still be put in place within vehicles wherever possible.
  • This means that where fewer children and young people are attending school, particularly during the first week of term, sufficient levels of capacity should be maintained to maximise social distancing, including through the use of vacant seats where possible.
  • In accordance with advice from PHE, children and young people aged 11 and over must wear a face covering when travelling on dedicated transport to secondary school or college. This does not apply to people who are exempt from wearing a face covering on public transport

What does it mean for Primary schools?

For primary schools that are within the specified areas that are applying the contingency framework – set out in annex A of the guidance (until 18 Jan when it will be reviewed), the key messages are:

  • All primary schools should only allow children of critical workers and those defined as vulnerable (which includes those with an EHCP) to attend.
  • Special schools should continue to allow pupils to attend full-time
  • Children and young people in special schools, including residential special schools, and special post-16 institutions should continue to receive high-quality teaching and specialist professional support. This is because children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and their families, can be disproportionately impacted by being out of education.
  • Attendance is encouraged but will not be mandatory for special school pupils of primary school age and parents will not be penalised if their child does not attend.
  • Schools should encourage vulnerable children to attend but if the parent of a vulnerable child wishes for their child to be absent from school, the parent should let the school know that the pupil will not be attending an apply for a leave of absence. The Department for Education expects schools to grant such applications for leave given the exceptional circumstances.
  • Where schools grant a leave of absence to a vulnerable child they should still speak to parents and carers, and social workers (where applicable) to explore the reasons for this and any concerns raised. The discussions should focus on the welfare of the child or young person and whether any adjustments could be made to encourage their attendance and ensuring that the child or young person is able to access appropriate education and support while they are at home
  • This should be agreed on a case-by-case basis with parents / the young person.