British schools struggle to stay open amid coronavirus outbreak

A school child walks in Westminster as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Schools across Britain were struggling to stay open on Wednesday, with some forced to partially or fully close due to the spread of coronavirus as pressure builds on the government to make a formal announcement that they should shut. Head-teachers are being forced to make unilateral decisions about closing as they struggle to cope amid rising staff and student absences due to the virus.

This comes amid confusion about why schools are advised to stay open when the government has stepped up advice to curb social contact to try to slow the spread of the virus.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said head-teachers were saying they were struggling to keep their institutions open beyond Friday. Between a tenth and a fifth of teachers are currently self-isolating but the number is rising, he said. “It is becoming harder to sustain the staffing in those schools, some schools are having to send home year groups and some schools are starting to close,” he added.

Britain has so far resisted pressure to follow Italy, France, and Spain by officially shutting schools. The government has said that school closures will not halt the outbreak and will deprive the healthcare system of workers who will be forced to look after their children.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, defended the policy before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, saying that school closures were “on the table”, but not a step the government should be taking at this time. But Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, whose modeling of the spread of the coronavirus swayed the government’s response, has said that closures would reduce the transmission of the disease.

The National Education Union said there was an “apparent contradiction” between banning mass gatherings and keeping schools open in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. School leaders have already begun making contingency plans to ensure that vulnerable children and children of public sector workers will still be looked after if schools close.

Ruth Luzmore, a head-teacher in London, has closed her primary school to everyone but pupils whose parents who work for the police, fire service, or teachers at other schools which have not closed.

The Department for Education declined to say how many schools have closed.

On parliament’s website, a petition calling on the government to shut schools and colleges has attracted more than 671,000 signatures.

Source: Reuters