Level 3 plus schools

Schools in areas where stay-at-home orders had been in place for an extended period of time (continuously from August 2021 or earlier) will follow a staged return to on-site learning under Level 3 plus settings from 18 October. Your school principal will advise you of your planned date of return and the COVID-safe plans on site to support this. All staff must be fully vaccinated before coming on site under the staged return.

Applies to all schools in Greater Sydney (including the Blue Mountains and Wollongong) and the following LGAs: Bathurst, Bourke, Broken Hill, Central Coast, Cessnock, Dubbo, Eurobodalla, Goulburn Mulwarre, Kiama, Lake Macquarie, Lithgow, Maitland, Newcastle, Port Stephens, Queanbeyan-Palerang, Shellharbour, Shoalhaven and Wingecarribee.

Students will return to face-to-face learning with NSW Health-approved COVID-safe settings on school sites in the following order:

  • from 18 October – department preschools, Kindergarten, Year 1

  • from 25 October – all remaining year groups.

Students completing their HSC are already able to return in a limited way and this will continue for the remainder of Term 3. From 18 October, these students will have full-time access to school campuses and their teachers

Last updated 3:40 pm 18 October 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the delivery of education in NSW and around the world. Our students, educational leaders, teachers, staff and families have shown remarkable resilience and flexibility throughout this period.

While the pandemic has affected everybody differently, there are some clear learnings and common themes emerging from NSW and around the world including the need for students to return to school as soon as it is safe for them to do so, because nothing can replace face-to-face learning with an expert teacher. Being at school with their teachers and peers is also vital for student wellbeing as well as social and emotional development.

COVID-19 response protocols

Updated 5:15 pm 15 October 2021

The department is continuing to work closely with NSW Health and other relevant agencies when a positive COVID-19 case is identified to have an impact on schools.

Please refer to the COVID-19 response protocols for more information.

About the staged return to school

Updated 9:30 am 7 October 2021

In Greater Sydney and other areas currently operating under Level 4 restrictions, the NSW Health advice is that it is safest for students to return in stages rather than all at once. Students in Kindergarten and Year 1 will return first given the importance of developing their foundational learning in the early years and their disrupted experience to date. Year 12 and HSC students will also be prioritised as they prepare to complete their final year of schooling and transition to further education, training and work.

Schools are restricting activities to established student cohorts. This may be in class, grade or stage groupings dependent on the size and organisation of the school. Schools will consider, where practical, physical distancing and limiting interactions between groups at entry and exit points, transitioning between classes, and during recess and lunch breaks to reduce contact between student cohorts and staff.

Students and staff travelling to and from school by public transport must follow NSW Health advice, including mask wearing.

Order of return

Students will return to face-to-face learning with NSW Health-approved COVID safe settings on school sites in the following order as announced by the Premier on Thursday 7 October:

  • 18 October: department preschools, Kindergarten and Year 1
  • 25 October: all remaining year groups.

Students in Year 12 and those completing their HSC are already able to return in a limited way and this will continue for the remainder of Term 3. From 18 October, these students will have full-time access to school campuses and their teachers.

Conditions for a staged return to school

The NSW return to face-to-face learning plan for schools that were under an extended period of learning from home has been informed by the Doherty Institute Modelling Report for National Cabinet and ongoing advice from NSW Health.

For a staged return to face-to-face learning (Level 3 plus), the following conditions will need to have been met:

  • Students will only be able to return if the adult community vaccination rates are over 70%. This is on track for early to mid-October.
  • Where requirements are reached, students return to school in cohort groups – with students in department Preschools,Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 12 as well as those completing their HSC prioritised, and other cohorts to follow.
  • If cases in certain LGAs increase significantly, learning from home will resume for that LGA until case numbers drop. This will be advised by NSW Health.
  • Start and finish times will be staggered, with no mixing among student cohorts.
  • Any staff member returning to school sites will be required to present evidence of 2 doses of vaccine.
  • Eligible high school students will be strongly encouraged to have received 2 doses of vaccine before their return to face-to-face learning.

Learning delivery

To provide a safe learning environment for students, minimise opportunities for transmission and enable the most effective contact tracing and containment measures in the event of a COVID-19 case, schools will be required to adopt a cohort model.

The principles of student cohorting are to:

  • minimise unnecessary physical interaction between students on school grounds
  • ensure that students learn and play only with those in their cohort, wherever possible
  • minimise opportunities for transmission and enhance contact tracing
  • minimise the potential for widespread infection across the school and wider school community
  • enable learning to be delivered effectively via face-to-face and home-based learning
  • facilitate opportunities for ongoing collaboration for staff, while delivering face-to-face and home-based learning.

Primary settings

In the early stages of returning to school (department Preschools, Kindergarten and Year 1), students will be placed into class-based cohorts. Ideally this will be their normal class.

During this period:

  • Masks are strongly recommended to be worn by all students when indoors.
  • Classroom teachers will ideally be the allocated teacher for their cohort.
  • Each cohort will be allocated a learning space, completing all lessons and break times with their allocated cohort.
  • Break times, playground and canteen access will be staggered by cohort.
  • Within each cohort, students should maintain strict personal hygiene and physical distancing wherever possible.
  • Students who are unable to return to school will continue to receive one unit of work in line with current guidelines, delivered via online learning or learning from home packs. Teachers may facilitate this by:
    • working collaboratively with another staff member
    • structuring classroom delivery to enable time to support students learning from home
    • structuring classroom delivery to involve both face-to-face and home-based students in the learning.
  • In some schools (such as smaller schools, or those with a stage-based class structure), school leaders may choose to amalgamate smaller classes to form one cohort, while adhering to class size policy. Students must then remain in this cohort.

As additional year groups return to school, the class-based cohort model will be replaced by a year-based cohort model.

Schools will manage the year-based cohort model in a way that best meets the needs of their students, as long as they maintain the core principles of cohorting (outlined above).

Students in support classes should return in line with their year group and according to the needs of each student.

Secondary settings

  • Schools with secondary students will adopt a year-based cohorting model from the outset, which will determine their arrival, break and leave times. Schools will create smaller cohorts within year groups where subject choices and flexible timetabling allow.
  • Within each cohort, students should maintain strict personal hygiene and physical distancing.
  • Masks are required to be worn by all students in Year 7 and above when indoors.
  • These measures will enable secondary school students and teachers to return to their normal timetable.
  • Students who are unable to return to school will continue to be supported to learn from home in line with current guidelines.
  • Students in support classes should return in line with their year group and according to the needs of each student.

Schools for specific purposes

  • It is recommended that students in schools for specific purposes (SSPs) return at the same time as students in mainstream settings to maximise the re-establishment of a consistent routine.
  • SSP Life Skills HSC Pathway students should have the option to attend school as per the HSC guidelines provisioned for mainstream settings and where appropriate.
  • Given the complex and diverse nature of SSPs, principals may choose to delay students' return to face-to-face learning until Level 3 settings are in place. This should be considered in consultation with families to support the individual learning needs of the students.

A reminder for all families

Students are expected to attend school from their designation return to school date unless they are unwell or have even with mild symptoms of COVID-19. Any person with any COVID-19 symptoms must be sent home and not return to school unless:

  • they have isolated for 10 days, when no medical certificate is available
  • they have a negative COVID-19 test result and are symptom free.

In circumstances where children have other medical reasons for recurrent symptoms, a letter from their GP is sufficient to negate the requirement for a negative test.

Anyone who is unwell with COVID-19 symptoms is strongly encouraged to get tested and self-isolate until a negative result is received. Find your local testing clinics.

Break times

  • The class or year-based cohort system must be maintained at break times, and break times should be staggered by cohort wherever possible.
  • Physical distancing of 1.5m should be maintained, wherever possible.

Drop-offs and pick-ups

Drop-offs and pick-ups will be staggered by cohorts and schools are to use all possible entrances and exits to support the beginning and end of school days.

Parents and carers must follow their school’s advice regarding changes to student drop-off and pick-up. This includes staying in the car when dropping off and picking up children if it is safe to do so. This does not apply to drop off and pick up from outside of school hours care (OOSHC) as sign-in and sign-out procedures are required.

Parents and carers should:

  • follow the physical distancing advice for their local area and avoid gathering outside school gates
  • remain outside school grounds (some exceptions may exist for SSPs, vulnerable students or students with disability) 
  • adhere to mask-wearing requirements in accordance with the Public Health Order
  • sign in using the Service NSW QR code if entering the school.

Check-in protocols when attending a school site

All staff and visitors attending a school site must comply with school protocols and check in using the applicable Service NSW QR code.

Masks and face coverings

Last updated 8:00 pm 17 October 2021

NSW Health advice requires that all staff must wear a face mask or covering at all times when indoors. This includes adults in all early childhood education and care settings, including when caring for and educating children.

While on schools sites masks are required indoors for all staff and all students Year 7 and above. Masks are strongly recommended indoors for primary students.

Mask supplies are a back-up for schools. Staff and students should bring their own mask where possible.

Some exemptions apply. Refer to the NSW Government face mask rules.

Masks remain mandatory on public transport. This applies to students aged 13 years and over, and staff when travelling to and from school and during school excursions by public transport or by chartered or private transport services.

Student vaccinations

In the event that a vaccination program is implemented for primary-school-aged children in NSW public schools, informed consent will be sought from the child’s parents or carers before any vaccine is administered.

Parents and carers may wish to discuss options for vaccination with their GP in the event their child becomes eligible for a vaccination in NSW.


Non-essential visitors are not permitted on school sites including:

  • official visitors and dignitaries
  • media and production crews
  • visits by local members.

Workers, including contractors supporting the infrastructure development and maintenance of schools, can continue on site.

Allied Health partners and other providers that are unable to deliver critical services remotely are permitted and should continue to operate in a COVID-safe way.

All essential visitors are required to sign in using the school’s Service NSW QR code.

All visitors are required to wear a face mask or covering in accordance with the Public Health Order.

Staff supporting schools

  • Staff providing essential support for student wellbeing are permitted on site, such as HSLO and counsellors.
  • Non-school-based educational leaders are permitted to conduct visits in person, if essential.
  • Corporate staff (unless as outlined in these guidelines) must not attend school sites unless services cannot be provided remotely.
  • Mask wearing and COVID check-in is required for all visitors.

What is permitted during school hours or within schools

Schools can continue to operate:

  • canteens where appropriate hygiene measures are in place, as long as:
    • they can ensure that they are accessed by one cohort at a time
    • physical distancing is in place
    • canteen staff follow normal COVID-safe protocols around vaccinations and testing
  • early childhood services (OSHC, vacation care, preschools etc.)

What is permitted with modification

Shared spaces

Shared spaces, such as changing rooms, libraries, school halls and other communal areas, may only be used by one cohort at a time, with adherence to strict personal hygiene protocols and physical distancing requirements.

Assisted student travel

Assisted student travel should be minimised wherever possible, in order to maintain the integrity of the cohort model. Assisted student travel will remain available for students who access the service and continue to attend school on site, in accordance with the following guidelines:

  • Parents and carers are encouraged to use their personal vehicles to transport their children to and from school, whenever possible, in order to minimise risk of transmission.
  • As per current advice, carpooling with people outside of your household is not permitted for anyone residing in Greater Sydney. This includes both students and staff.
  • Students from different schools should be transported separately.

School-based activities

Updated 4:30 pm 5 October 2021

  • Dance and/or drama are permitted in line with COVID-safe practices within classes in outdoor spaces. Mixing of classes is not permitted (except for HSC assessment purposes with COVID-safe practices in place).
  • Library activities are permitted in line with infection control requirements.
  • Uniform stores can only operate if they are online or have pre-ordering arrangements in place, with one dedicated staff member attending outside of school hours to arrange distribution.
  • Emergency drills and evacuations where possible should be conducted in a COVID-safe manner. This means where possible keeping classes, groups or cohorts together.

Pre-service teachers and others on professional experience placements (including VET, TAFE, trade schools)

Updated 11 am 15 October 2021

  • Pre-service teachers and others on professional experience placements are required to be fully vaccinated by 8 November. Those back on-site under Level 3 plus settings are required to be fully vaccinated from 18 October 2021. Principals should ensure all placements meet these requirements.
  • Department schools are encouraged to accommodate placements for final year pre-service teachers while under Level 3 plus settings and above restrictions. Schools may consider accommodating penultimate year pre-service teachers when they are on Level 3 settings.
  • Professional experience placements are voluntary for all schools.
  • Schools should provide face-to-face learning opportunities for pre-service teachers where possible and mixed delivery learning opportunities where face to face is not possible.
  • VET work placements could resume wherever possible in line with Public Health Orders. Some industries where vaccinations are mandated may decline to take a placement student unless that student is fully vaccinated. NESA has advised that students who cannot complete their VET work placement due to COVID-related impacts will still be eligible for the HSC. Any placements must be subject to appropriate risk assessments and approvals.
  • Trade schools, VET and TAFE courses should continue to be delivered virtually where possible. Training that cannot be delivered virtually or on line can be delivered face to face as long as the training complies with COVID-safe practices and NSW Public Health Orders.
  • School based apprenticeship and traineeship training should continue to be delivered virtually where possible. Training that cannot be delivered virtually or on line can be delivered face to face as long as the training complies with COVID-safe practices and NSW Public Health Orders.
  • In areas where lockdown has been lifted, School based apprentices and trainees (SBATs) may undertake employment as long as their employment complies with COVID-Safe practices and NSW Public Health Orders.
  • The white card training to school students should only be conducted via face to face delivery.
  • Work experience should be deferred.

Activities that are not permitted or on hold

Schools will stop the following activities during school hours or within school grounds:

  • singing, chanting, group repetition and choirs (except for HSC preparation and assessment purposes as outlined above)
  • sport (except for sport within existing PDHPE classes, provided this limits student mixing)
  • bands and ensembles
  • interschool activities and events including interschool sport, gala days, trials, knock outs and carnivals
  • special religious education/special education in ethics/voluntary student activities
  • community language schools
  • assemblies
  • school performances, productions, concerts, speech nights and award presentations
  • excursions, camps, field trips and principal-endorsed activities for students
  • international excursions
  • student visits to aged care facilities
  • community events (fetes, grandparents’ days etc.)
  • playgroups
  • P&C activities, including meetings (unless held online only)
  • all external providers and specialist programs not directly related to educational outcomes and support, including community use of school facilities (such as markets and all after school activities) unless delivered online only
  • school holiday programs (noting that vacation care programs on school sites may continue under current guidelines).


Schools must implement COVID-safe arrangements for exams to minimise mixing between students, ensure that students are appropriately spaced and that exams are conducted in well-ventilated rooms and spaces.

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) has announced a number of changes to the 2021 HSC timetables. For more information, refer to NESA.

Formals, graduations, end of year celebrations, orientations and transition

Updated 3:50 pm 8 October 2021

Further advice will be provided in Term 4 working closely with the mass gatherings team in NSW Health.

Online orientation and transition programs can be conducted in Term 4. Schools will contact parents and carers with more information.


Current cleaning regimes will continue on school sites. Target areas include high-touch areas and other hard surfaces, door handles, lockers, light switches and handrails in stairways and movement areas. Enhanced cleaning is delivered as part of the daily cleaning of schools.


Open or well-ventilated spaces reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. For more information, refer to the NSW Government’s COVID-19 guidance on ventilation.

Boarding schools

Boarding schools must comply with all school requirements set out in these guidelines as well as Level 3 guidelines.

Preschools managed by the department

Preschools will be managed consistent with the rest of the schools in accordance with these guidelines.

Preschools should consider procedures to support pick-up and drop-off from the school gates. Where this is not possible or unsafe, families should pick up from the door of the service, following COVID-safe guidelines.

For more information, please refer to Early Childhood Education and Care.

Border communities

Students and staff in border communities can continue to attend NSW schools at this time, except for the following reasons:

  • They must remain at home if they are unwell, even with the mildest of symptoms. If they are unwell they must receive a negative COVID test and be symptom-free before returning to school.
  • If they have been to a venue of concern, or if they or someone in their household has been identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case, they must comply with the self-isolation and testing requirements as directed by the relevant Health department.

All students and staff who cannot attend school or work due to interstate border disruptions will be supported to learn and work from home.

Download the roadmap to return to schools

The Roadmap to return to school (PDF 1.56 MB) is available as a downloadable PDF. Note that this information was current until 10 October 2021 only. Refer to the advice on this page for the latest information.

Schools operating under Level 3 plus settings

Download the list of Schools operating under Level 3 plus settings as of 11 October 2021 (PDF 374.2 KB). Please check the Level 3 page if your school does not appear on this list.

Please note that the list may contain schools that are made temporarily non-operational due to a positive COVID-19 case impacting school or a local emergency such as floods or sewerage issues. Your school will contact you through their usual communication channels when this occurs.

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The following schools are under Level 3 Plus restrictions:

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