Schools in Wales and Scotland will close by the end of this week while a decision on whether to do the same in England will be taken ‘imminently’ amid the worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The Welsh government announced today that all schools will close for an early Easter break by Friday at the latest.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, said her country will be doing the same due to the impact of coronavirus on teacher numbers.
And in a sign that the school closures may not be short term, Ms Sturgeon said she could not ‘promise that they will reopen before the summer holidays’.
No announcement has been made on schools in England but Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested at lunchtime during PMQs – before the Welsh and Scottish decisions were announced – that some sort of action will be taken in the very near future.
The PM said the government would act to ‘square the circle’ of making sure the spread of the virus is slowed while also ensuring there is not an adverse impact on NHS capacity.
Senior figures in the government fear a blanket closure of schools would adversely affect the health service because key workers could be forced off work to look after children.
There are also concerns that closing schools could lead to elderly grandparents being asked to look after grandchildren while parents continue to work.
The over-70s are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus and have been urged to avoid all non-essential social contact.
Nicola Sturgeon today announced that schools in Scotland will close on Friday because of the coronavirus outbreak. Wales has taken the same decision
Boris Johnson said at PMQs at lunchtime that decisions on continuing education provision in England would be taken ‘imminently’
Children & parents/carers arrive at school in West London. Many schools remain open despite the coronavirus crisis
Education is a devolved matter in the UK which means devolved administrations have the final say on what happens to schools within their borders.
Minister for Education in the devolved Welsh government Kirsty Williams announced this afternoon that closures in Wales will now go ahead.
She said: ‘Today, I can announce we are bringing forward the Easter break for schools in Wales. Schools across Wales will close for statutory provision of education at the latest on 20 March 2020.
‘I have been clear up to now that the continuity of education and the wellbeing of our learners has been at the heart of my decision making. This will always be the case.
‘From next week, schools will have a new purpose. They will help support those most in need, including people involved in the immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak. I am working with my colleagues in the Cabinet, with government officials and our partners in local government to develop and finalise these plans.’
She said those plans would focus on ‘supporting and safeguarding the vulnerable and ensuring continuity of learning’.
Ms Williams said that ‘childcare settings are expected to remain open until we have definitive advice from the Chief Medical Officer and from Public Health Wales that any closures are required’.
Ms Sturgeon said schools in Scotland had now lost too many staff through self-isolation to continue functioning as normal.
She said: ‘My view is that it is now inevitable that we will close schools and nurseries and my planning assumption now is that schools will close to pupils at the end of this week. I wanted today to give parents notice of that now.’
She added: ‘We have the reality on the ground as people do the right thing and follow the advice to self-isolate or to isolate as a household, more and more schools are approaching the point where they have lost too many staff to continue as normal.’
The Scottish First Minister said measures would be put in place to try to ensure doctors, nurses and other critical staff who have children can still work.
‘Lives are on the line if they cannot,’ she said.
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon said she did not know when schools in Scotland would be able to reopen.
‘On the question that I know parents and the wider public will have of how long this will last, the clearest guidance I can give now is that people should not assume that schools and nurseries will reopen after the Easter break,’ she said.
‘We will of course only keep them closed for as long as we absolutely have to but at this stage I cannot promise that they will reopen before the summer holidays.’
Mr Johnson told MPs during PMQs that decisions on education provision in England will be taken ‘imminently’.
He said: ‘We will do everything we can to remove burdens on schools and Ofsted is one in particular we can address.
‘The House should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and how to make sure we square the circle both of making sure we stop the spread of the disease but also making sure we relieve, as much as we can, pressure on our NHS.’
The announcements by the devolved administrations came after it emerged that pupils in some parts of the country were apparently sitting in empty classrooms while others were believed to be ‘faking coughs’ to stay home amid parents’ fury that schools were still open.
A petition demanding all schools and colleges be shut down for an ‘appropriate amount of time’ has been surging in recent days.
A petition calling on the government to close schools across the UK has more than 672,000 signatures
Before the school closure announcements were made, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, had warned many schools would not be able to remain open past the end of the week.
He said roughly 10 to 20 per cent of teachers were self-isolating but the number was ‘rapidly rising’.
Concerned teachers have also claimed as the outbreak has worsened they were unable to keep classrooms clean enough around the clock.
Alderman White School in Bramcote, near Nottingham, had this morning asked parents to keep their children at home today, if they could provide childcare.
It was also announced today that Marlborough College in Wiltshire would move to an ‘online learning environment’ and Eton College – Mr Johnson’s old stomping ground – would also close to pupils.
The public school – which has fees of over £14,000 per term – decided to send pupils home this afternoon.
One member of staff at the school, who did not want to be named, said: ‘I don’t think it’s much of a secret. We’re sending the boys home at lunch today.’
A spokesman for Marlborough College said staff wanted to do their best to implement social distancing guidelines set out by the government.
They said: ‘Marlborough College is moving to a “virtual school” environment from 1pm on 18th March.
Boris Johnson’s old stomping ground Eton College (pictured above) near Windsor, is to shut down in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic
Marlborough College (pictured) in Wiltshire also said it was moving to an ‘online learning environment’ from 1pm today
‘This decision will enable the College to continue to operate, given the increasing numbers of pupils and staff taking precautionary measures to self-isolate or to preempt further global travel restrictions which is making it impossible for the College to provide effective full boarding 24/7 residential care.
‘The College will continue to deliver its timetabled academic lessons, pastoral support and co-curricular provision to pupils remotely, utilising a number of online platforms and delivery methods.
‘The College has no confirmed case of COVID-19 and the campus will not be closed. All members of staff will continue with their duties until the end of term’.
Parents have suggested some children have tried to capitalise on the outbreak in order to avoid going to school.
One said children ‘were not stupid’ and added: ‘Get Boris to close schools! All the children are making up a cough to come home anyway 40 sent home yesterday from one school yesterday and there’s probably nothing wrong with them yet!’
Meanwhile, some schools have reportedly been incorporating cleaning into lesson plans, asking pupils to help keep classrooms as hygienic as possible.