In Depth

Coronavirus: when will schools close?

Government sparks confusion after urging people to limit contact with others while refusing to close schools

The UK government has left parents and teachers confused after it told people to avoid even small gatherings, but stopped short of closing schools.

In his daily address on the unfolding coronavirus pandemic on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the public to avoid all unnecessary contact and travel, and to stay away from pubs, theatres and other public places. However, despite considerable pressure, no closure of schools was announced.

Some parents have begun taking children out of school, while over 650,000 people have signed a petition calling for government to “Close Schools/Colleges down for an appropriate amount of time amidst COVID19”.

But will this force the government’s hand?

Why isn’t the government closing schools?

Last week, Johnson said scientists advised that closing schools “could do more harm than good”.

Sky News reports that schools are being “advised to cancel trips abroad, and children are included in the new advice”, which says that anyone with a continuous cough and/or a high temperature must stay at home for 14 days.

The prime minister added that “lines of defence” must be deployed at the right time to have the full effect.

Johnson stated: “The most important task will be to protect our elderly and most vulnerable people during the peak weeks when there is the maximum risk of exposure to the disease and when the NHS will be under the most pressure.”

What do experts say?

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London and director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, who has been a key figure in the modelling of the spread of coronavirus, has said that shutting schools would reduce the transmission of the disease.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday, Ferguson said: “From a purely epidemiological perspective we think, with a lot of uncertainty, that closing schools and universities would further reduce transmission.

“I have to say we don’t fully understand whether children are transmitting this virus in the same way they would transmit other viruses but, assuming that, it would have an impact.”

The government is now facing growing questions over why it has stopped short of closing schools – a measure that almost every other European country has taken.

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What do parents and teachers say?

Late last week, the National Education Union (NEU) – the largest education union in Europe – wrote to the prime minister calling on him to clarify why he has not closed schools, laying out staff concerns about UK policy.

The NEU’s joint general secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, wrote: “Every day we are getting increasing numbers of questions from teachers and support staff asking why the Westminster government isn’t following the pattern of other countries in calling for periods of school closure.

“Those questions are increasingly asking why schools aren’t closing if mass gatherings are to be suspended.”

And this week the questioning ramped up considerably after Johnson once again refused to close schools, despite telling the public to avoid even small gatherings.

In response to the inaction, parents have reportedly begun “taking the decision into their own hands”, HuffPost UK says, and are “flouting official advice by keeping their children off school to protect their health”.

But the site notes that the “prospect of getting fined for failing to send their children to school is worrying many parents”, adding that a petition entitled “No prosecution for parents that remove child from school during a pandemic” has already reached close to 80,000 signatures.

When might schools close?

Schools Week reports that teaching unions and school leaders are holding frequent talks with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to discuss plans for schools and colleges.

On Monday, Williamson met Geoff Barton, the leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Paul Whiteman, who heads up the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). In a statement published later, the pair said they had a “very productive meeting” with the minister, adding that it was “likely that a number of schools will have to close” in the coming weeks.

However, the pair also stated they were concerned “about the implications for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities as well as children who receive free school meals if a school is closed or they have to self-isolate, and similarly, the wellbeing of vulnerable young people where there are identified safeguarding risks”.

“There is also the crucial question of SATs, GCSE and A-level exams which are scheduled in May and June,” they said. “We must move quickly to provide clarity and address the obvious anxiety for pupils, families and staff about what may or may not happen, and what contingencies are in place to deal with the inevitable disruption.”

However, the government’s hand could be forced by teachers and parents when it comes to closures. The Guardian reports that “growing numbers of schools in England could be forced to close and send children home as a result of staff shortages” as “teachers with symptoms follow government guidance to self-isolate”.

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