COVID-19: Schools reopening

This page gives information about teaching music in schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where guidance issued by the four governments is unclear or silent on issues involved in music teaching, we work to secure greater clarity from the governments, for example through the use of parliamentary questions and direct contact with government officials.

We update this page frequently so please do check for updates regularly.

Page updated: 2 September 2020

Back to school key dates:

  • England: all primary and secondary schools to be fully open from the beginning of September.
  • Scotland: all schools to be open from 11 August, with option for phased return but no later than 18 August.
  • Wales: all schools to be open from 1 September, with option for phased return during first two weeks.
  • Northern Ireland: schools opened on 24 August 2020 for Primary 7, Year 12 and Year 14 pupils and for vulnerable children across all year groups; all other pupils to return from week commencing 31 August.
  • Risk assessments are essential to safe working in schools

  • If you are returning to teaching in a school, whether as an employee or as a peripatetic or self-employed teacher, you should ask the school what steps it has taken to assess the risks relevant to you. You should also ask to see its risk assessment.
  • If you work in multiple locations and are permitted to travel between them, you should be aware that each school may have its own COVID-19 risk assessment and associated procedures. Make sure the school administration does not forget about you! Ask them to help you understand what applies in each school at which you teach.
  • Please see the section The importance of risk assessments in schools below for more information about what schools should do and what they should tell you.
  • England

    All primary and secondary schools should now be open from 1 September. On 23 June the Prime Minister announced that primary and secondary education will recommence in September with full attendance. The Department for Education published new guidance for full opening of schools in England on 28 August.

    The guidance delegates responsibility for implementing effective controls to school leaders and governing bodies: 'There cannot be a 'one-size-fits-all' approach where the system of controls describes every scenario. School leaders will be best placed to understand the needs of their schools and communities, and to make informed judgements about how to balance delivering a broad and balanced curriculum with the measures needed to manage risk.'

    This means that you may encounter differences between schools that you teach at, so it is important that you make sure you are given any guidance, rules and risk assessments prepared by each school.

  • Risk assessments to be undertaken by schools: Your employer and the employer in control of any premises you may be visiting must undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment which considers the risks to you and the measures required to keep you safe. You have a right to see this assessment.
  • Social distancing in schools is a key prevention principle in this guidance. Teachers are advised to keep two metres’ distance from pupils and adults. Close face-to-face contact or working within one metre should be limited.
  • Peripatetic teachers can move between schools but must comply with any school’s individual arrangements for managing and minimising risk, including taking particular care to maintain distance from other staff and pupils.

    Teaching music in schools
    : the latest DfE guidance expands its previous commentary. See Section 3 of the Guidance under the heading Music, dance and drama in schools.

    Key point summarised:
  • All musical activities and teaching can be undertaken but with the caveats noted below, as contained in this guidance and guidance provided by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) for professionals and non-professionals, DCMS studies show that cumulative aerosol transmission from both those performing in and attending events, which is likely to create risk. DCMS is continuing to develop a more detailed understanding of how to mitigate this potential aggregate risk. This is relevant for singing, brass and wind instruments – see below.
  • Minimising contact between individuals – all concerned must do everything they can to minimise contact between individuals, through keeping groups separate and through distancing: ideally, two metres.
  • Other risk-mitigating actions include limiting numbers playing or singing at once, playing outdoors, playing indoors in spaces with high ceilings and good ventilation with limited numbers. Singing, wind and brass playing should not take place in larger groups such as choirs and ensembles or assemblies unless significant space, natural airflow (at least 10l/s/person for all present, including audiences) and strict social distancing and mitigation (see below) can be maintained.
  • Social distancing: In smaller groups where these activities can take place, schools should observe strict social distancing between each singer and player, and between singers and players, and any other people such as conductors, other musicians, or accompanists. Current guidance is that if the activity is face-to-face and without mitigating actions, two metres is appropriate.
  • Seating positions: pupils should be positioned back-to-back or side-to-side when playing or singing (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible. Position wind and brass players so that the air from their instrument does not blow into another player.
  • Keep background or accompanying music volume down at levels, which do not require teachers and performers to raise voices, as this is considered an increased COVID-19 transmission risk.
  • Use microphones where possible or encourage singing quietly.
  • Handling equipment and instruments: increased hand washing is important. Sharing equipment, scores, parts and scripts should be avoided if possible. Schools should ensure there are proper procedures for cleaning instruments and establish processes for picking up and dropping of instruments and other materials.
  • Individual music, dance and drama lessons and performances in groups can resume in schools, FE colleges and out of school settings, but social distancing for peripatetic teachers is required, as noted above.
  • Individual music lessons in private homes can take place as previously announced provided that social distancing is observed (two metres if face-to-face and without mitigation) and subject to ventilation in the space being used. Pupil and teacher will ideally be positioned side-by-side. Instruments and materials should not be shared if at all possible. If they have to be shared, they should be regularly disinfected and cleaned in accordance with the guidance for performing arts: see Section 5 of this guidance.

    Check that the risk assessment for any school you work at addresses these points where relevant.
  • Northern Ireland

    The new term started on 24 August for primary 7, year 12 and year 14 pupils and for vulnerable children across all year groups.

    Social distancing:

  • The Northern Ireland Department of Health general requirement for social distancing at two meters remains in force. But in schools, in recognition of other mitigating measures, strict social distancing requirements between all pupils are relaxed but will remain in place between adults (at two meters) and, as far as is practicable, between adults and pupils.
  • Where this is not possible, the aim should be to maintain at least one meter social distancing for as much of the time as achievable.
  • For pupils in Years 11-14, social distancing should be adhered to as far as is possible with limited interactions between different year groups.
  • For younger pupils while social distancing is not a requirement, it should be encouraged and facilitated where practicable as part of other mitigating measures.
  • Further information

    See the Northern Ireland Department of Education latest update on school reopening and its revised guidance for schools.


    Scottish schools opened from 11 August, with option for phased return but no later than 18 August.

    The Scottish Government has published extensive guidance for reopening schools (also available as a downloadable PDF).

    Members should note the following:

    Movement between schools (paragraph 65):

    'Movement between schools (e.g. of temporary/supply/peripatetic staff etc) should be kept to a minimum, until further notice. This includes attendance at school of those who visit, such as visiting teachers, psychologists, nurses and social workers. Recognising the importance of holistic support for children and young people requirement to meet their needs, every effort should be made to secure these wider inputs through lower risk methods such as digital/virtual means or outdoor settings.'

    Music & singing (paragraph 129)

    'Scientific and medical advice around how activities such as singing, talking at volume theatre performance, or playing wind/brass musical instruments can be managed safely is still being developed. These activities should be avoided during the initial return to schools.'

    Physical distancing

  • Primary schools: no distancing is required between primary school children (paragraph 43).
  • Secondary schools: the guidance recommends as a precaution encouraging distancing between pupils where possible, along with other suggested mitigating actions (paragraphs 44-49).
  • Between adults: two metre physical distancing between adults, and between adults and children and young people (paragraph 62)
  • Between adults and children: two metre distancing is desirable but acknowledged that this may not be possible. If adults cannot maintain two-metre distancing and are interacting for a ‘sustained period’ (stated to be about 15 minutes or more) face coverings should be worn (see paragraphs 63 and 64.)
  • Wales

    Autumn term start date: 1 September.

    Peripatetic teachers can move between schools, but must follow local instructions and procedures at each school where they teach.

    Social distancing
    remains at two meters between adults. The latest guidance from the Welsh government acknowledges that it may not be possible or practical to achieve this distancing between younger children but mitigations include establishing groups to minimise contacts between pupils.

    Staff in secondary schools are advised to maintain distance from their learners, staying at the front of the class, and away from their colleagues where possible. Ideally, adults should maintain a two metre distance from each other, and from learners. Teachers should also avoid close face-to-face contact and minimise time spent within 1 metre of anyone.

    Further information

    Back to school plans from September FAQs
    Operational guidance for schools in Wales

    The importance of risk assessments in schools

    An employer has a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. In order to do so, an employer must carry out a risk assessment, in line with the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance.

    In brief:

  • All employers with five or more employees must undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment.
  • Risk assessments must be shared with all staff and their representatives before any individual can be required to return to work.
  • Risk assessments must be suitably specific for music teaching, and take account of risks arising from particular circumstances, eg for choirs and singing, wind ensembles etc. Music staff must be involved in preparing these risk assessments.
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides protections for individuals raising or acting on health and safety concerns. The ISM will seek to enforce these provisions on behalf of members.
  • No individual teacher, whatever their relationship with a school or educational establishment, should be penalised or suffer any detriment for raising or acting on health and safety concerns. This means that your employer must identify and assess the risk – specifically deciding how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how serious it could be; put in place measures to control the risk; record the findings and review the control making any changes if necessary.
  • Your employer must consult with you or trade unions on health and safety matters.
  • Specifically, they should consult you on how the risk assessment has been or will be carried out, the outcome, and what measures will be put in place to prevent the risk of infection during your teaching.

    Ask your employer to tell you what steps have been taken to comply with Health and Safety legislation and the most recent guidance issued by the Government on working safely during Coronavirus.

    You should also ask your employer:
  • whether they have carried out a health and safety check on the school’s premises, including the music room
    if you are a singing or wind instrument teacher you should also ask
  • whether specific assessment has been carried out on the risk of infection in connection with your teaching, taking into account the layout of the music room
  • what cleaning and hygiene arrangement have been planned
  • what communications have been made to parents
  • when these measures will be put in place
  • what arrangements have been put in place to eliminate the risk of infection during music lessons specifically in terms of:

    social distancing
    protective equipment
    group lessons

    If your employer or engager has not taken any or insufficient steps, you should notify your concerns and their shortcoming in the employer’s protection arrangements. Employees and, in some cases, workers, have the right not to be dismissed or treated detrimentally where they raise health and safety concerns.
  • Contact the ISM

    If you are an ISM member and you or your colleagues have concerns or questions about any of this please contact us at [email protected]