Schools and colleges across England will be told to shut from tomorrow until the middle of February under Boris Johnson’s new national coronavirus lockdown.
Primary and secondary schools will have to shift to remote learning for the overwhelming majority of pupils, with only vulnerable children and the children of key workers allowed to attend classes in person.
Meanwhile, university students will be banned from returning to campuses and will be told to study remotely from home as the Prime Minister desperately tries to get the rate of Covid-19 infection back under control.
The restrictions and school closures are expected to last until the February half-term which is due to begin on February 15.
The massive disruption to learning means the Government will rethink its current plan for pupils to sit GCSEs and A-levels broadly as normal in May and June.
However, pupils and parents face an uncertain next few weeks, with the Department for Education and exam regulator Ofqual yet to hammer out the details of the updated exams plan.
Despite the school closures, early years settings like nurseries, as well as special schools, will be allowed to remain open during lockdown.
Announcing the shutdown of the nation’s schools during an address to the nation from Downing Street this evening, Mr Johnson said the Government had no choice but to take the drastic action as ministers ‘do everything we possibly can to stop the spread of the disease’.
The Prime Minister said he ‘completely understands the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents’ and that ‘we recognise that this will mean it is not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal’.
Mr Johnson said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will announce ‘alternative arrangements’ for the assessment of pupils in the coming weeks.
Boris Johnson announced this evening that all schools and colleges in England will shut from tomorrow under his new lockdown plans
Addressing the nation this evening, Mr Johnson said: ‘Because we now have to do everything we possibly can to stop the spread of the disease, primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England must move to remote provision from tomorrow, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
‘Everyone will still be able to access early years settings such as nurseries.
‘We recognise that this will mean it is not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal.
‘The Education Secretary will work with Ofqual to put in place alternative arrangements.
‘We will provide extra support to ensure pupils entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them while schools are closed and we will distribute more devices to support remote education.’
The Prime Minister said he understood the sense of frustration which will be felt by parents across England at the latest change in tack by the Government.
‘I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country, parents whose children were in school today may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner,’ he said.
‘The answer is simply that we have been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances.
‘I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children, children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid, the problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.’
The Government has been under growing pressure to keep a majority of pupils out of the classroom since it announced last week that primary schools in numerous hotspot areas would be told to stay closed at the start of January.
Ministers also pushed back the start of term for the bulk of secondary school pupils by a week, meaning they were set to return on January 18 rather than January 11 – when only Years 11 and 13 preparing for exams were due to go back.
Mr Johnson said this morning that the argument for keeping schools open was ‘powerful’.
The Prime Minister has also insisted that schools are safe and that closing primaries would be a ‘last resort’.
But education unions had warned that bringing all pupils back to school could fuel the pandemic and put teachers at ‘serious risk’ of falling ill.
A joint statement from unions representing school staff and head teachers blasted the Government’s ‘chaotic’ handling of the reopening of schools and said it had caused confusion for parents and staff.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said before the Prime Minister’s address to the nation that any lockdown had to include the closure of schools.
He tweeted: ‘We must introduce a national lockdown now. Tragically, that must mean school closures.
‘We need a simple contract between the British people: the country goes into lockdown, the Government delivers the vaccine. Stay at home, protect the NHS, vaccinate Britain.’
Mr Johnson’s address to the nation came hours after Nicola Sturgeon announced that schools in Scotland will remain closed for all of January as part of a new lockdown north of the border.
Ms Sturgeon said she hoped schools in Scotland would be able to return on February 1.
The lengthy closure of classrooms will wreak havoc with the school year and raises questions about exactly how pupils will be assessed.
The Government has previously been adamant that exams would be sat in 2021 after the closure of schools meant they had to be scrapped last year.
Ministers said in October that they were working with exam regulator Ofqual to put plans in place for tests to go ahead.
They said exams would be pushed back by three weeks, starting after the May bank holiday half-term and finishing on July 2.
The closure of schools until the middle fo February will inevitably prompt calls for the exams to be completely cancelled.
Mr Johnson said this morning that the risk posed by coronavirus to teachers was no greater than to anyone else.
He said: ‘The risk to teachers, and of course we will do everything we can to protect teachers, but the risk to teachers is no greater than it is to anyone else.
‘The reasons for wanting to keep schools open I think are very, very powerful.’
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt had called for the closure of schools ‘right away’ as he warned that the pressures facing hospitals are ‘off-the-scale worse’ than previous winter crises.
Early findings from a small study carried out in November suggested that the proportion of school children and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.
The study of 105 schools, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last month, found that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff overall tested positive for current infection – similar to the 1.2 per cent reported in the community.
But no data or major study has been published since the emergence of a new, more infectious, strain of coronavirus.
The NAHT school leaders’ union has called on the Government to disclose scientific evidence regarding the impact of the new Covid-19 variant on schools.
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: ‘NAHT began legal proceedings last Friday to force the government to reveal the scientific data it is withholding that underpin its assertions that schools are safe.
‘We remain unconvinced, and we await the Government’s reply, which is due at 4pm today.’
The NAHT – alongside the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, GMB, Unison and Unite – had earlier called for a move to remote learning for most pupils amid safety concerns.
Ministers had already faced union fury over the Government’s chaotic plans for the proposed reopening of schools in January
Pupils across England are now facing the prospect of many weeks of remote learning as schools are told to stay shut
All staff continuing to work in schools with vulnerable pupils and children of key workers should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations, the coalition of unions argued.
They said in a joint statement: ‘Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.’
The NEU had already advised its members that it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday as schools in a number of non-hotspot areas said they intended to stay shut, against the Government’s original orders.
Gildersome Primary School in Leeds, which is in Tier 3, has been forced to shut to most children indefinitely after 16 staff signed a letter saying they are ‘exercising their right not to teach full classes’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that it is ‘clear that the proportion of teachers who catch coronavirus is no higher than the rest of the population’.
He added: ‘So there is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people’s long-term health.’