With the new term underway, and many restrictions once used to curb the spread of the virus wiped out over the summer, schools now have an entirely new challenge to navigate: the latest Covid vaccine drive.
It was announced earlier this week that the Pfizer/BioNTech jab will be offered to 12- to 15-year-olds in schools after the UK's four chief medical officers recommended the vaccine for older children.
The move means that around three million students could be eligible for the jab.
But what is schools' role in the process? Today's guidance from the UK Health Security Agency outlines some key points on what to expect, and how to prepare.
Who will administer the vaccines?
An NHS-commissioned School Age Immunisation Service (SAIS) team will be the "primary provider" of jabs for healthy 12- to 15-year-olds.
This may include nurses, healthcare support workers, administrative staff, and other associated professionals who specialise in the delivery of school-age vaccinations.
The SAIS team will also be legally responsible for the delivery of the jabs.
But schools will need to provide space on site for the vaccine to be administered, as well as time away from their normal schedule to enable this to take place.
Who is in charge of seeking parental consent?
It will not be up to schools to secure consent to administer vaccines from either parents or children, nor will they be responsible for "mediating" if a disagreement arises.
The UK Health Security Agency says the SAIS team will provide a consent form and information leaflet for schools to share with parents and children.
Parents will also be given a contact number for the SAIS team in case of any queries.
Schools may be asked to collect the consent forms on the team's behalf, or the process may be done electronically.
They can also play an "important" role by:
- sharing the leaflets and information;
- signposting parents and children to official sources of information on vaccines; and
- sending out email links, letters and reminders.
In secondary schools, the agency says some older children "may be sufficiently mature to provide their own consent".
In these cases, it says "every effort will be made to contact the parent to seek their verbal consent". Schools will have no role in this process.
What will schools need to do?
The guidance says schools' local SAIS teams will be in touch to agree a date for the vaccination session, as well as the best approach for implementing the programme in each case.
Schools will then have three "primary roles" in the process:
- to provide information to their SAIS provider on which children on their roll are eligible for the vaccine;
- to share the information leaflet, consent form and invitation letter supplied by the SAIS team with parents and children; and
- to provide the space within school, and the time away from the timetable, to enable vaccinations to take place,
The agency says the SAIS team "will try and keep disruption to a minimum" and only ask schools "to do the things that they cannot do themselves".
How should schools cope with misinformation?
The guidance is clear that heads and teachers should not "engage directly" with false or misleading campaigns about the vaccine, as "misinformation narratives and tactics flourish when they are responded to".
However the agency says they should "acknowledge receipt of concerns" and "refer to the latest scientific guidance on the issue" if necessary.
What about protests from anti-vaxxers?
The guidance says the government is aware that schools have been seeking advice on how to handle Covid vaccines protests if they happen on site.
It also acknowledges that some schools have been receiving campaign letters and emails with misinformation about the jabs.
To best prepare, the agency suggests that schools get in touch with the SAIS team at the "first opportunity", to establish "what security planning they have in place".
"Schools should already have a security policy, based on a security risk assessment. This process is covered in published guidance on school and college security," it says.
"In the event of a protest or disruptive activity outside a school, or if schools know a protest is planned, they should alert the SAIS provider, local authority and police contacts to discuss the best way to manage the situation."
What has the reaction been?
Commenting on the guidance, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "We welcome the fact that this guidance makes it clear that legal accountability for offering Covid-19 vaccines to children and young people sits with the School Age Immunisation Service and not with schools.
"We had asked for the government to make this clear in its guidance because many of our members have been receiving letters from various pressure groups threatening schools and colleges with legal action if they take part in any Covid vaccination programme.
"We are pleased that the government has responded in this way and we would ask that these pressure groups cease this activity."
He added: "It is also clear from the guidance that the role of schools will be limited to hosting these sessions and providing and sharing associated communications, with the vaccines administered by healthcare staff, as is normal with school-based vaccinations.
"The guidance is absolutely clear that schools are not responsible for mediating between parents and children who may disagree about whether or not to consent.
"This is the role of registered nurses in the School Age Immunisation Service.
"We are very concerned about the possibility of protests being held outside schools, and we are pleased to see that the guidance references this and provides advice about how to respond to this threat.
"Frankly, however, it is a sorry state of affairs if any individuals or groups think it is helpful in any way to stage a protest outside a school over a vaccine programme which is designed to help reduce educational disruption and which seems to us to be in the best interests of children and young people.
"We implore people not to stage such protests."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, said: "We are pleased to see that the government has made it very clear that whilst vaccination teams might make use of school buildings, the responsibility, including legal responsibility, for delivering jabs will sit entirely with the appropriate medical teams. This should help keep disruption in schools to a minimum.
"It's very important that parents now direct any questions or concerns to the vaccination teams via the number provided so that school leaders can focus on the education of pupils."