Now it’s the schools: PM scraps exams and shuts down classes
• Johnson forced to act after virus spreads faster than anticipated • London could face lockdown as UK death toll increases to 104
Schools across the UK are to close indefinitely from tomorrow, with A-levels and GCSE exams cancelled, as the government made another sudden escalation in its efforts to curb the increasing spread of coronavirus.
Boris Johnson said he had been forced to close classrooms for pupils in England – the first countrywide school shutdown in modern times – as the virus spread faster than anticipated, forcing teachers and pupils to self-isolate.
The decision came hours after Scotland and Wales announced their own blanket school closures and thousands of schools in England decided unilaterally to close or turn away pupils amid staff shortages and parents’ concerns. Soon after the prime minister’s announcement, Northern Ireland also announced the closure of all schools.
But schools will remain open for the supervision of potentially hundreds of thousands of children of NHS staff and other frontline workers, as well as vulnerable children, Johnson said. He also announced a national voucher scheme to ensure pupils eligible for free school meals get a meal each day and said this summer’s exams would be replaced by teacher assessment.
On a day of rapid policy shifts as the UK death toll from the virus reached 104, it also emerged that London faced a potential lockdown similar to those in other European cities, with the prime minister warning the country he is prepared to take “further and faster measures”. Stringent action to enforce social distancing is not expected within the next two days. The Ministry of Defence is to double the size of the military’s
The government’s policy had been to keep schools open, not least to ensure that key NHS and frontline care workers could remain in their posts rather than going home to look after their children. But Boris Johnson said he had been forced to change tack because the rate of Covid-19 infections was increasing faster than expected. He said the public health benefits of keeping schools open had shifted and the scientific advice was schools should close to slow the spread of the virus. Many had already been forced to because of staff shortages.
What does it mean for parents?
When schools close tomorrow, many parents will have little choice but to take time off work to look after their children at home. The measures apply to state and private schools alike, nurseries and sixth-form colleges. The advice is not to ask grandparents to help, because of their vulnerability to the virus. Schools have been drawing up homework packs and online resources to help parents homeeducate. The government said it planned to provide a skeletal school service for parents who were key workers on the frontline – including doctors, nurses and food delivery workers. Vulnerable children, those who have a social worker, and pupils with education, health and care plans which entitle them to special needs support, will also be able to stay in school.
Is it safe to send my child to school if I am a key worker?
The government has emphasised children do not appear to be severely affected by the virus, and with only small numbers of pupils and staff attending school in the coming weeks and months, risk of transmission will be much reduced. The chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has stressed schools are not dangerous for children and the decision to close is to “knock down” transmission and delay the progress of the virus.
What if one parent is a key worker?
In such a case, the government will expect the other parent to have their child at home. Single parents who are key workers will be entitled to a school place.
What about the summer exams?
GCSEs and A-levels have had to be cancelled and it’s not yet been spelled out exactly what will replace them. In England, almost all qualifications are now assessed by end-of-course exams, so there is no continuous assessment to rely on. However, teachers ordinarily provide predicted A-level grades for students applying to university, and GCSE students have already sat mock exams, which will have given their teachers a some idea of their pupils’ likely results. The education secretary was at pains to reassure pupils and their families that every child would get “the proper recognition” they deserve. “We’re working very closely with Ofqual to have a detailed set of measures that make sure no child is unfairly penalised,” he said.
MoD reinforces support
The MoD is to double the size of the military’s civil contingency unit to create a 20,000-strong Covid-19 support force, the defence secretary has announced.
An additional 10,000 troops will be added to the 10,000 routinely held at higher readiness in case of a civil emergency, and reservists could also be called up, Ben Wallace said last night.
The MoD said the support force could be asked to help with tasks including the driving of NHS oxygen tankers, for which 150 military personnel will begin training on Monday. Haroon Siddique
What about free school meals?
Emergency plans are being drawn up to try to ensure that vulnerable children meals do not go hungry when schools close. The government is planning a voucher scheme to make up for free school meals. Where possible, schools will be encouraged to keep their kitchens open to cook hot meals and act as a food distribution hub for children in need, while elsewhere headteachers are making supermarket vouchers available to try to ease the burden on the most vulnerable families. More than a million children in England who come from the most disadvantaged families currently benefit from a free school lunch. For many it may be the only hot meal of the day and experts say it is vital that children continue to benefit, despite the closures.
How long will school gates be shut?
At this stage no one is able to say how long schools will stay closed, though it seems clear it’s more likely to be a matter of months rather than weeks, depending on how the pandemic progresses. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told MPs he would be “guided by scientific and medical advice” on reopening. In practice they could remain closed until the start of the next school year in September.
What will children be able to do?
The government is keen to encourage as much educational activity at home as is feasible, but parents are going to have to be creative – and very patient. As well as homework and materials provided by individual schools, the government is working with the BBC to develop resources to keep children occupied and stimulated, and many e-learning platforms are offering their resources free of charge. With cinemas, museums, theatres and libraries closed, all normal entertainment is ruled out. Like everyone else, children will be subject to the same social-distancing rules, which mean travel and outings are curtailed and most activities will have to be home-based. One of the challenges will be to keep children physically active with group sporting activities and space confined.
Trafalgar Square in London at 4.30 pm yesterday as social distancing took effect
▼ GCSE and A-level students will not sit summer exams but will still gain qualifications, the government says