Covid-19: Managing and supporting your school's staff

Written by: Jane Hallas | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With increased staff absence due to Covid-19, increased anxiety among our colleagues, and an ever-changing landscape, supporting and managing our teaching colleagues is a priority for school leaders this year. Employment law expert Jane Hallas offers some tips

This autumn term is proving as challenging for schools as the summer term with rising infection rates, new rules and guidance from the government, and a tiered approach across England, with Wales and Scotland applying different restrictions.

Understandably many employees are experiencing feelings of anxiety and stress, and it can be challenging for headteachers and business managers to know how to deal with such issues, as well as trying to ensure children’s educational needs are met.

The government has made it very clear that schools must stay open – so how should you manage the challenges that this unique situation presents? Here are my top suggestions for managing the current situation from an employment law perspective.

Review policies and procedures

If you have not yet updated policies and procedures because of coronavirus, you should consider doing so now. Updating these brings clarity over what will happen if staff experience symptoms, test positive, are instructed to self-isolate by NHS Track and Trace, or live with a household member who has symptoms or tests positive.

If you have recognised unions, you should already have health and safety representatives in place who you can work with in terms of reviewing health and safety policies and procedures.

If you do not, then you can set up a health and safety committee with employee representatives to ensure all voices are heard across the school.

If you have an equalities and diversity group or committee, it is important to include them in reviewing matters too. If you do not have an equalities and diversity group, consider how best to involve members of staff from diverse backgrounds.

Keep up-to-date

Decide how best to keep up-to-date with the changes to guidance and who is responsible for doing this. The guidance can be difficult to follow and is apparently conflicting at times, so decide who will check this; will it be someone internally or do you need to utilise external expertise? Sector-specific resources, such as those in Ellis Whittam’s free Coronavirus Advice Hub (see further information) can help.

Consider mental health initiatives

The impact on people’s mental health during these uncertain times should not be underestimated. If you have not done so already, consider training staff to be mental health first-aiders. Devise a mental health and wellbeing policy and let staff know what kind of support is available.

Take a top-down approach in terms of managers checking on mental health within their teams, offering support as appropriate and encouraging people to seek help if a more specialist intervention is required – a good starting point for any teacher or school leader is the Education Support helpline or online support (see further information).

Trying to find time in the busy week to check-in with people is more important than ever. Managers should be alert to anyone who appears to have changed from their normal self and offer support and a listening ear.

For tips of how to speak to colleagues about their mental health, then see the recent article for our sister magazine SecEd – Conversations about mental health (2020).

Consider vulnerable staff

Particular care needs to be given to certain members of staff who may be at higher risk in terms of infection. Identify which groups of staff may be at risk due to their ethnic background or existing health issues, this may include pregnant women, people with diabetes, those with existing mental health issues, cancer and so on. Ensure that they are included in your planning.

Conduct vulnerable person risk assessments

For those staff who are classed as vulnerable, undertake an individual vulnerable person risk assessment to ensure they are getting the appropriate support they need in the workplace. If they are unable to attend work, this should be supported by medical evidence from their GP, with fit notes submitted as normal.

Seek medical advice as necessary

If an employee feels that they cannot attend work due to a health condition other than coronavirus or because they feel too anxious, get their consent to a medical report or occupational health referral. In that way you are relying on medical advice in terms of ensuring whether they can reasonably be expected to attend work or not.

Always seek advice on what reasonable adjustments may be required for a disabled employee. The definition of who is disabled is anyone who has a long-standing physical or mental impairment which is affecting their normal day-to-day activities. If in doubt, get their consent to a medical report so you know what kind of support is recommended.

Manage sickness absence

Ensure that you keep proper records of sickness absence, as the rules around statutory sick pay are different depending on whether someone is off sick with coronavirus or another illness.

If an employee does become ill with the virus, the requirement for waiting days has been scrapped and statutory sick pay can be payable from the first day of absence. For any sickness absence that is non-Covid-related, the three-day waiting period still applies, so it is important to make that distinction when making payments.

For school support staff who are on the Green Book (the National Agreement on Pay and Conditions), remember that: “An employee who is prevented from attending work because of contact with infectious disease shall be entitled to receive normal pay. The period of absence on this account shall not be reckoned against the employee’s entitlements under this scheme.” (Part 2, Paragraph 10.9)

Similar provisions apply to those under the Burgundy Book (the conditions of service for school teachers in maintained schools in England and Wales).

Correctly label other absences

It is important that accurate records of other absence are maintained, for example, dependent care leave, or an emergency relating to the care of someone, such as a child. Such absences are unpaid unless the contract or policy states differently and they should not be treated as sickness absence.

This leave is for the very short-term to deal with a breakdown in care. If longer leave is needed to care for a child, then parental leave can be taken instead. This is normally for four weeks leave per child in each leave year and is usually unpaid.

Bereavement leave sadly may be required more than ever and this should be set out in your handbook or policy. Since April 6, 2020, employees have the right to take one or two weeks off work following the death of a child under-18 or a stillbirth and there is a right to statutory parental bereavement pay, depending on the individual's length of service and earnings.

Remember employees’ legal rights

When dealing with any employee issues, it is important to remember employees’ legal rights. These are set out in their employment contract and should cover details relating to sick pay and absence, working hours, job title and cross reference to any collectively agreed terms, policies and procedures or employee handbook.

It is also important to remember employees’ statutory rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against due to a protected characteristic (such as pregnancy, disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief or age) and rights for part-time workers and fixed term employees not to be treated less favourably compared to comparable full-time staff and permanent employees. There are also rights not to be dismissed unfairly, subjected to a detriment or dismissed for raising health and safety concerns or whistleblowing.

Remind employees of their obligations

Employees have obligations set out in their employment contracts, job descriptions and rules, policies and procedures. Teachers are also normally required to comply with the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011), which set out expectations about professionalism and behaviour. You can hold employees to account for any of breaches of your rules, provided that it is done in a fair way and following your own procedures. It is always a good idea to deal with any issues as soon as they arise.

And finally…

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keeping the lines of communication open is more important than ever. Keeping in touch with staff, updating them about any changes, offering support and encouragement is more important than ever. And those leading schools should also ensure they seek support themselves.

  • Jane Hallas is head of education and solicitor at employment law and HR support firm Ellis Whittam. Visit

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.