Back to school: How will 'bubbles' work from September?

When students return to school in September there will be new guidance in place around how bubble groups should be used to minimise the spread of coronavirus. But how will these groups work?

Tes Editorial

social distancing bubbles

This article was originally published by the Tes Editorial Team on 02 July 2020 on 

New government guidance around how schools should manage full reopening from September places great emphasis on grouping students into “bubbles” as a way to minimise contact and reduce transmission of coronavirus.

Previously, bubbles have meant groups of no more than fifteen pupils working with dedicated members of staff. But the new guidance has brought some changes.

So what should bubbles look like now? And how can schools manage the new arrangements?

We have been through the guidance to find the answers to some key questions about how the bubble system should work.

How many students should make up a bubble?

This depends on the age of the students and school context.

With older secondary students (key stages 4 and 5) the guidance states that it is likely that bubbles will need to be the size of a year group “to enable schools to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects and students to receive specialist teaching”. 


This should mean that the “vast majority” of students will be able to continue to follow all of their subject options for GCSE and A-level. 

However, at key stage 3, it is recommended that students form bubbles that are the size of a full class, “if this can be achieved”. The same advice applies to primary schools. 

And if schools feel it is possible to continue teaching the full breadth of the curriculum through smaller groups at key stages 4 and 5, then this is also recommended.

What if primary schools can’t make class-size bubbles work?

The guidance suggests that schools should prioritise delivering a “broad and balanced” curriculum, even if that means forming larger bubble groups in some cases.

“Schools should assess their circumstances and if class-sized groups are not compatible with offering a full range of subjects or managing the practical logistics within and around school, they can look to implement year group sized ‘bubbles’,” the guidance states.

Bubble groups should still be kept apart from other groups “where possible”, regardless of how big they are.

Do students still have to socially distance within their bubbles?

Yes, where possible. Older children should be encouraged to keep their distance from one another within their groups and to keep their distance from staff.

However, younger children, who are not able to maintain social distancing, will not be expected to do so. In these cases the emphasis is likely to be on “separating groups” rather than on distancing.

Should each bubble remain in a dedicated area of the school?

Not necessarily, however groups should be kept apart where possible and movement around the school site should be kept to a minimum. 

Large gatherings, such as assemblies of more than one group at a time, should be avoided. 

Schools can choose to keep children in their class groups for the majority of their classroom time, but also allow mixing into wider groups for specialist teaching or wraparound care. 

Do teachers have to remain with a dedicated bubble?

No. All teachers and other members of staff “can operate across different classes and year groups in order to facilitate the delivery of the school timetable”. 

However, where staff need to move across bubbles, they should ideally try to maintain 2 metres distance from other adults and as much distance from pupils as possible.

Again, the emphasis is on doing what you can while continuing to provide “a full educational offer”. 

Can children from the same household be in different bubbles?

Yes. According to the guidance, siblings may be in different groups. 

If one student falls ill, does the whole bubble have to go home and self-isolate?

The guidance does not state that whole year groups will necessarily have to isolate if one case of coronavirus is reported. Instead, schools should refer to their local health protection team to decide what to do on a case-by-case basis. 

The health protection team will then carry out a rapid risk assessment and provide definitive advice on who must be sent home.

However, any student or member of staff who develops symptoms of coronavirus in school must be sent home to self-isolate for seven days and get tested. 

To support this process, all schools will be given “a small number of home testing kits that they can give directly to parents/carers collecting a child who has developed symptoms at school, or staff who have developed symptoms at school, where they think providing one will significantly increase the likelihood of them getting tested”. 

What about children who are more vulnerable because of pre-existing health conditions, or have family members who are vulnerable? 

These students should be able to be included in bubbles as normal. Current shielding advice is set to pause on 1 August, subject to a continued decline in community transmission rates.

If the rate of the disease rises in a specific area of the country, vulnerable people may be advised to shield again for a period of time, so schools need to be prepared for this eventuality.

How do you avoid contamination of shared spaces?

Schools must introduce enhanced cleaning arrangements, including putting in place a cleaning schedule for frequently touched surfaces and more frequent cleaning of shared areas that are used by different bubble groups.

Different bubble groups do not need to be allocated their own toilet blocks, but toilets will need to be cleaned regularly and pupils must be encouraged to clean their hands thoroughly after using the toilet.

How do you manage practical subjects that require specialist equipment? 

Classroom based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within the bubble; these should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces. 

Resources that are shared between classes or bubbles, such as sports, art and science equipment should be cleaned frequently and meticulously and always between bubbles, or rotated to allow them to be left unused and out of reach for a period of 48 hours (72 hours for plastics) between use by different bubbles.


This article was originally published by the Tes Editorial Team on 02 July 2020 on 

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