19 Mar 2020
What Impact will school closures have on children and parents?
Why are schools closing now?
Up until Wednesday the British government’s policy had been to keep schools open, not least to ensure that key NHS and frontline care workers can remain in their posts rather than going home to look after their children. But Boris Johnson said the government had been forced to change tack because the rate of Covid-19 infections was increasing faster than anticipated. He said the public health benefits of keeping schools open had shifted and the scientific advice was that schools should close to slow the spread of the virus. But by the time the announcement was made, many schools had already been forced to close because of staff shortages due to illness or self-isolation measures.
What does it mean for parents?
When schools close on Friday, many parents will have little choice but to take time off work to look after their children at home. The measures apply to state and private schools alike, nurseries and sixth-form colleges. The advice is to not ask grandparents to help with childcare, because of their vulnerability to the virus. Schools have been drawing up homework packs and online resources to help parents home educate. Without being able to provide immediate details, the government said it plans to provide a skeletal school service for parents who are key workers on the frontline of the national effort to stem the pandemic – including doctors, nurses, and food delivery workers – so they can stay at work. Vulnerable children, those who have a social worker, and pupils entitled to special needs support will also be able to stay in school. Where possible special schools and residential schools will continue to look after children and young people.
Is it safe to send my child to school if I am a key worker?
The government has emphasised throughout that children do not appear to be severely affected by the virus, and with only small numbers of pupils and staff attending school in the coming weeks and months the risk of transmission will be much reduced. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has stressed that schools are not dangerous for children and the decision to close now is to “knock down” transmission and delay the progress of the virus.
What if only one parent is a key worker?
If one parent is a key worker, the government will expect the other parent to have their child at home. Single parents who are key workers will obviously be entitled to a school place.
What about the summer exams?
GCSEs and A-levels have been cancelled and it’s not clear exactly what will replace them. In England, almost all qualifications are now assessed by end of course exams so there is no continuous assessment to rely on. However, teachers ordinarily provide predicted A-level grades for students applying to university, and GCSE students have already sat mock exams which will have given their teachers some idea of their pupils’ likely results. The education secretary was at pains to reassure pupils and their families that every child would get “the proper recognition” they deserve. “We’re working very closely with Ofqual to have a detailed set of measures that make sure no child is unfairly penalised,” he said.
Is there any special provision for children eligible for free school meals?
Emergency plans are being drawn up to try to ensure that vulnerable children who are entitled to free school meals do not go hungry when schools close. The government is planning a voucher scheme to make up for free school meals.
Where possible schools will be encouraged to keep their kitchens open to cook hot meals and act as a food distribution hub for children in need, while elsewhere headteachers are making supermarket vouchers available to try to ease the burden on the most vulnerable families. More than a million children in England who come from the most disadvantaged families currently benefit from a free school lunch. For many it may be the only hot meal of the day they enjoy and experts say it is vital that children continue to benefit, despite the closures which could last for a long time.
How long are schools likely be closed?
At this stage no-one is able to say exactly how long schools will stay closed, though it seems clear it’s more likely to be a matter of months rather than weeks, depending on how the pandemic progresses. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told MPs he would be “guided by scientific and medical advice” on reopening. In practice they could remain closed until the start of the next school year in September.
What will children be able to do while they are off school?
The government is keen to encourage as much educational activity at home as is feasible, but parents are going to have be creative – and very patient. As well as homework materials provided by individual schools, the government is working with the BBC to develop resources to keep children occupied and stimulated and many e-learning platforms are offering their resources free of charge.
With cinemas, museums, theatres and libraries closed, all normal entertainment is ruled out. Like everyone else, children will be subject to the same social-distancing rules which mean travel and outings are curtailed and most activities will have to be home-based. One of the challenges will be to keep children physically active with group sporting activities and space confined.
What impact will the closures have on students mental health and wellbeing?
Gerard Barnes, CEO of Smart TMS – specialists in treating depression in teenagers – examines the effect of school closures and exam disruption on the mental health of the UK’s students and discusses the importance of social interaction and communication for young people and provides tips for parents looking to help their children cope with social distancing:
The implementation of strict social distancing means that children everywhere will be no longer be able to spend time with their friends and classmates on a regular basis. Young people are exceptionally social creatures and regular social interaction is absolutely vital for the development of their social skills and mental health, but a long-term policy of social distancing and potential lockdown will see their exposure to real-life social interactions drastically affected.
The mass closure of schools and mass cancellation of exams leaves thousands of young people across the UK in limbo, with no concrete knowledge of when they will be able to return to school and no information on how they will be able to receive the qualifications vital for university and college places, or even further employment.
This news comes amidst rising rates of depression and severe anxiety amongst children and young adults across the UK; according to the Mental Health Foundation, more than 1 in 10 children aged 10-15 say they have no one to talk to about their mental health concerns, whilst the number of children and young people saying they have a mental health condition has grown six fold in England over two decades according to studies by UCL and the University of Exeter. Higher levels of loneliness increases the risk of developing depression by 12% and social anxiety by 10%.
#HaveYourSay – How are you coping? What troubles you most about COVID-19? If you’re working from home amid the outbreak, has your productivity suffered, or improved? Let us know by leaving a comment below – we’ll feature the most interesting answers right here next week.