Schools could extend Easter holiday in battle against coronavirus

Schools are preparing for an extended Easter holiday, The Daily Telegraph has learned, with headteachers having been summoned to speak to ministers about emergency plans.

There is a “real logic” to extending the Easter break by a week on either side, according to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

“Undoubtedly, people have been having discussions about it,” he said. “Parents will already have plans of one type or another for what they are doing with their children over Easter.

“In some ways, it becomes less disruptive if it were just part of a kind of elongated planned holiday.”

Virus experts have forecast that the UK is a number of weeks behind Italy, which shut all its schools last Thursday.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said this week that the UK was four weeks behind Italy “in terms of the scale of the outbreak” if not “in terms of the response”. Meanwhile, Dr Michael Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease control at Warwick University, said Britain was two to three weeks behind Italy in terms of the growth of cases.

The Government has so far insisted that schools should remain open, but has come under pressure after France, Ireland and Spain this week announced plans to close schools.

Officials are worried that suddenly putting thousands of children in need of parental childcare could seriously damage already fragile staffing levels in key public services.

The current Government advice that schools should only close if specifically advised to do so follows a spate of unilateral temporary closures.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said closing schools to protect children was not justified by the science as, so far, they did not seem to be at risk of death from coronavirus. But the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said school closures remained under review and advice could change in the future.

Leaders of ASCL, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), which represents multi-academy trusts, have  been summoned to meet Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, on Monday to discuss plans.

Rob Campbell, of the NAHT, said there had “certainly been a lot of speculation” among heads about an extended Easter holiday and added: “It is fortunate that most schools have got a two-week break coming up, which could be extended by a couple of weeks or so.

“Schools are preparing for all eventualities. We are all investing a lot of work into our online provision.”

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the CST, said multi-academy trusts were planning for multiple scenarios including closures.

“In the last couple of weeks there has been extensive executive activity looking at alternative arrangements and undertaking risk assessments,” she said. “What’s important is that school leaders are in a state of readiness.”

She said her members favoured the extended Easter break approach, adding that it would be “very unhelpful” for schools to open again after the holidays and then be ordered to close. “That would be incredibly disruptive,” she added.

Mr Barton said one topic likely to be discussed with ministers was that of schools staying open to effectively provide childcare for medical professionals and other key workers.

He said he also intended to raise the issue of the Government’s line on school trips abroad, which he said was causing “alarm” among headteachers. At the moment, schools are “advised against” all overseas trips.  

 “There needs to be a clearer line,” Mr Barton said. “What are the Government saying? Are they saying don’t travel?  Because that’s probably what needs to be heard now.”

He revealed that some parents were already pulling their children out of school, and said schools should treat coronavirus-related absences as authorised.

“We have seen examples from our members where parents have said: ‘My child is going to stay at home,'” he said. “People will be worried about will they pick something up in school, will they bring it home and grandma gets it?

“There will be all kinds of things, some of which are completely legitimate concerns and some of which will be scientifically unproven.”  He added that this was only happening on “a very small scale” at the moment.

Ministers are preparing to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with pupil absences and the “exceptional circumstances” guidelines that can be applied. Mr Barton said that if parents decided they wanted their children to stay at home, schools should count this as an “authorised” absence and parents should not be penalised.  

“It’s the parents who have ultimate responsibility for the child, so if they decide they are keeping their child at home, that’s what their decision would be, we would authorise it,” he said.

Under current laws, pupils are only allowed to miss school if they are too ill to go in or have advance permission from the school.

Mr Williamson said: “We’re going to take a very sensible and pragmatic approach in this route, and we’re not going to be penalising any schools on issues that are completely outside of their control.”

Meanwhile, officials at the Department for Education are in discussions with exam boards about contingency plans for GCSEs and A-levels.

Ofqual, the exam regulator, is expected to make an announcement in the coming days about how schools should go about preparing for the exam season in order to minimise disruption for students.

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