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

The Guardian - - Front Page - Richard Adams Heather Ste­wart

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

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