Why schools haven't shut yet in response to coronavirus

18 March 2020

3:09 AM

18 March 2020

3:09 AM

One of the big sources of confusion in the Government’s latest advice on coronavirus is about schools. You don’t have to go far on Twitter or Facebook to find memes like this one, suggesting Boris Johnson is wrong not to order teachers and pupils to follow the rest of the country:


Angry pupils and parents are piling in, calling for schools to shut their doors. MPs are being inundated with calls to intervene. There are reports that some children are already being taken out of school by their parents, while other schools are checking kids’ temperatures when they arrive for classes to determine whether they are allowed to stay or not. For some, all this is proof that the Tories aren’t taking things seriously.

But while the Government hasn’t necessarily helped itself by failing to fully clarify its apparently contradictory advice, there is a simple reason why schools aren’t shut, at least not yet. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told MPs this afternoon that closing schools was still ‘on the table’ but hadn’t been implemented yet. Here’s what he told the Commons health select committee:

‘When we looked at all of the interventions, we looked at the ones that had the biggest impact first, albeit with the variability that we talked about and those that have less effect, and school closing was definitely a bit lower down the list than some of the ones that we’ve announced. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do anything. It would have an effect, but it has all sorts of complicated effects as well, including the one that you mentioned of potentially leading to children being with grandparents and so on. And, of course, also causing an enormous problem, not just for the workforce generally, but for the workforce in the NHS as well. So it’s a complicated one. And all I can do is give this sort of science advice on that.’

Vallance went on to point out that while some are suggesting Britain is unique in keeping schools open in its response to coronavirus, that isn’t the case:

‘I think as you look across the world, for example, Singapore hasn’t closed schools. It’s introduced some different measures in schools. Taiwan, I think didn’t close schools in managing it. So there’s been a variability across the world in terms of school closures and whether that’s been part of the approach or not. It’s absolutely on the table as the whole suite of measures are, the evidence base is there to suggest where it might work and where it doesn’t work. And decisions will, I’m sure, be made at the time it needs to be made around school closures, which is one of the things one of the levers to pull to try to get on top of this at the right time.

But while this explanation makes sense, how much longer will schools realistically remain open? Headteachers are piling pressure on the Government to announce closures imminently, with the association of school and college leaders’ general secretary Geoff Barton saying that for big schools the number of teachers being struck down by the virus meant that staying open into next week might be too big an ask.

‘Some very seasoned head teachers have been calling me to say they will not be able to manage much longer,’ he said. ‘One said he had 17 members of staff call in sick. And I think this will be replicated around the country. Some areas may be worst hit than others, but there’s an inevitability about this. The trajectory cannot go anything other than downwards. People are saying they will do well to get to the end of the week.’

The National Education Union has also stepped in to say that schools should now be shut. What’s more, nearly 700,000 people have backed a petition calling on the PM to ‘consider closing schools/colleges down in the coming weeks or as soon as possible’. Nonetheless, for now, classes are on. But it is surely a matter of time before school children are sent home for the foreseeable future.

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