School closures in Covid lockdown: latest news on when they could reopen

All primary and secondary schools have closed, after England moved into a third national lockdown.

The Prime Minister stated on Jan 4 that schools will need to offer remote learning until at least mid-February and GCSE and A-level exams face cancellation for a second year.

Replacing traditional exams, GCSE and A-Level students will receive their results from their teacher-assessed grades, and, in some rare cases, some mini external exams, which may have taken place throughout the year. 

In a letter to the chief regulator, Mr Williamson expressed an interest in exploring "the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers".

He has said that although teachers will provide the final grades, exams made be used as a resource "to support their assessments of students."

Plans for the daily testing of secondary school pupils and teachers instead of isolating are to be put on hold, when they return to classrooms, due to the higher rates of transmission and secondary attack rate observed in the new covid variant.

Only vulnerable children and children of key workers are currently allowed to attend schools for face-to-face learning, and early years settings such as nurseries will remain accessible.

The deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the Education Select Committee on Jan 19 that it is "likely" that there would be "some sort of regional separation of interventions" for reopening schools. However, it is not clear whether this phased return could be down to each region’s vaccination roll out progress.

The Government had insisted schools would remain open only a day before the new measures were announced, reassuring parents it was "safe" to send their children back for the start of term on January 4.

But the move prompted backlash from four national teaching unions, who called for the delay seen across London to apply to all schools in England amid concerns the new strain of Covid-19 poses a threat to teachers.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England has called for teachers to be vaccinated "as a priority".

The Telegraph reported on January 9 that education experts warned that Britain needed to massively expand its army of tutors to stave off the long-term economic damage of Covid-19 from lost learning.

Read more: Tracking UK Covid vaccinations: Are we on target to end lockdown?

What are the rules for children of key workers and vulnerable children?

The Department for Education (DfE) said children with at least one parent or carer who was a critical worker could attend class — even if parents were working from home.

It came after concerns were raised about the risks of transmission of Covid-19 amid reports that more than half of pupils were onsite in some primary schools.

Those entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them during closures, according to Mr Johnson.

Matt Hancock said on Jan 11 that Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, will be sending out 500,000 laptops to vulnerable children to ensure they can access remote lessons.

The Prime Minister told MP’s that 560,000 laptops were distributed in 2020, but this still falls short of the 1.5m pupils that Ofcom estimates are without digital devices in their homes, on which they can learn.

A DfE spokesperson said: "Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.

"If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.

The DfE also said that schools were expected to "strongly encourage" vulnerable children to attend class.

Vulnerable children could include "pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home" due to a lack of devices or a quiet space to study, according to the advice.

But Government guidance says parents who choose to keep children out of class will not be penalised.

What do Tiers mean for schools?

The new lockdown measures mean the entire country will be subject to the same tougher measures, including the closure of all schools. This means the tier system is not currently in place.

Every school had been instructed to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay at home.

Mr Johnson said on the announcement of closing schools: "I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe to children.

"The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

Read more on the previous tier system: 

  • Tier 1
  • Tier 2
  • Tier 3
  • Tier 4
  • Tier 5

When will secondary schools reopen?

All schools will remain closed until mid-February, with the possibility that these measures could be extended further.

This means most secondary school pupils will stay at home until at least the February half-term. 

During a press briefing on Jan 18, Prof Susan Hopkins said it was tough to give a specific date as to when schools will reopen, however, she emphasised it was the Government’s priority to reopen them first. 

The deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the Education Select Committee that it is "likely" that pupils could return to schools dependent on the region they live in. 

Dr Harries said that "on the broad epidemiology it is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country.

"And therefore, as we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application."

Are there any changes to exams?

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has indicated that GCSE, A-Level and AS exams may take place after all. 

Mr Williamson addressed this possibility in a letter to the chief exam regulator on Jan 13. This contradicts his announcement on on January 6 that exams would not take place this summer. 

Mr Williamson explained that the replacement would be a "form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country".

However, the Education Secretary stated on Jan 13 that he would "like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers".

While teachers’ predicted grades will still be used, the exams may be necessary so that teachers can "draw on this resource to support their assessments of students", he said.

Previously, Mr Williamson had told the Commons that, while exams are the fairest way of testing a student’s knowledge, the Covid pandemic means it is "not possible to have exams this year" and ministers will "put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms". 

The Department for Education and Ofqual will launch a joint consultation on the plans later this week, and this will run for a fortnight.

How will testing in schools work?

In December, ministers said secondary school pupils and teachers would be able to have daily lateral flow tests for a week if they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

That would mean children could continue their education at school rather than entire classes or year groups being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days .

But on Jan 20, a  joint statement from  Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace said the balance between the risks and benefits of a daily testing programme in schools was now "unclear" and plans were being paused.

Student Henry Parker receives instructions on how to take a COVID-19 test at Oasis Academy in Coulsdon, Surrey

Credit: Aaron Chown/ PA

Other parts of the testing plan in schools – including two tests a week for teachers and two tests at the start of the school term for pupils – are still due to go ahead when schools reopen, officials said.

The statement from PHE and NHS Test and Trace, published on Jan 20 said: "Schools should continue to test their staff regularly – twice weekly where possible, in line with recommendations for other workforces that need to leave the home to work – and test pupils twice upon return to school, as has been the case since the start of January."

Schools will employ lateral flow tests, which produce results in 30 minutes, and in the case of a positive result a second sample will be sent to a laboratory for confirmation.

Social distancing and ‘bubbles’

When schools reopened in September the Government published 25,000 words of guidance explaining how school children and staff should be kept safe.

So-called “bubbles” were created so youngsters could learn and mix with fellow pupils. Large assemblies or collective worship should not include more than one group, and break and lunch times should be staggered to keep bubbles apart. Ensuring these “distinct groups do not mix” makes it quicker and easier to identify contacts if a positive coronavirus case emerges or someone has symptoms.

The bubbles can be larger, increasing to whole “year bubbles”, if teaching demands require it. Books, games and shared equipment can be used within that group, but must be cleaned if then used by another bubble.

Older children will be encouraged to avoid close contact with one another. Teachers are not restricted to a single bubble, but are urged to stay at the front of any classroom to reduce contact. In class, pupils must sit spaced out side-by-side and facing forward.

The use of the staff room by teachers is also meant to be “minimised”. 

If a pupil or teacher has symptoms or a positive diagnosis

Schools must contact local health protection teams immediately so those in close contact with the child can be traced. Currently, pupils in a bubble, year groups and (very rarely) the entire school could be asked to self-isolate. A mobile testing unit could also be sent to a campus. 

Plans to give secondary school pupils and teachers daily lateral flow tests for a week if they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, have been put on hold.

On Jan 20, a  joint statement from  Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace said the balance between the risks and benefits of a daily testing programme in schools was now "unclear" and plans were being reviewed.

The decision comes after the new Covid variant was found to have higher rates of transmission and a higher secondary attack rate, increasing "the risk of transmission everywhere, including in school settings".

The statement from PHE and NHS Test and Trace, published on Wednesday morning, said: "In light of this changing situation, we now recommend that the rollout of daily contact testing within schools is paused, other than for schools involved in further evaluation.

"This will enable the further detailed evaluation of changing circumstances including, potentially, lower infection rates and modelling work required to understand the benefits of daily contact testing in the this new phase of the pandemic.

A Government spokesman said: "We are… pausing daily contact testing in all but a small number of secondary schools and colleges, where it will continue alongside detailed evaluation."

If a parent insists a child with symptoms should attend school, the headteacher can refuse to take the pupil if they believe there is a threat to others.

Do children need to wear face coverings during class?

A school pupil wearing a face mask on a bus

Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

Although guidelines do not recommend the universal use of face coverings, each school can decide whether pupils above Year 7, teachers and visitors should wear them when in corridors and communal areas, where passing briefly is deemed a “low risk”. They will not be worn in class. 

A school supply of masks is also recommended for youngsters spotted wearing old or damp ones. Primary school children are not required to wear them.

Hygiene and cleaning

The guidance insists a “robust hand and respiratory hygiene” regime is in place, with children encouraged to clean their hands when they arrive at school, return from breaks, use bathrooms, change classrooms and before eating. Hand sanitiser stations should be commonplace, with possible supervision “given risks around ingestion”.

Staff will also supply and promote the use of tissues as part of the “catch it, bin it, kill it” technique to control germs.

“Enhanced cleaning” regimes will be introduced on surfaces which students touch regularly, such as desks, door handles, books and playground apparatus, which are cleaned with bleach and detergents. Toilets should also be cleaned regularly.

Pupils must limit equipment they bring to school, only carrying bags of essential items, “such as lunch boxes, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones”.

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