Relief amid ‘chaos’: In England, Covid shuts all schools

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Principals and teacher unions support the U-turn, but condemn the policy of the government

Principals in England expressed their relief at the decision of the government to “bow to the inevitable” and close schools.

They characterized the decision-making of ministers as chaotic, however, and called for immediate clarity on what would replace the exams next summer, which will no longer take place as expected.

Principals and teachers’ unions, who campaigned for a delayed reopening of schools after Christmas, said the government’s response was “last-minute and chaotic” and called for further coordination with teachers to ensure that schools are reopened safely as quickly as possible.

Concerns will now concentrate on attempts to prevent a replay of the exam debacle last summer and on the standard of distance learning, which has been plagued by the student digital divide.

Many deprived students, despite the government’s pledge of one million laptops, have been forced to go without the requisite technology.

Children of key staff and students from poorer families will continue to attend school, as with previous closures, but all other students will turn to distance learning and online learning from Tuesday onwards.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the announcement, saying, “We are relieved that in response to alarming covid infection rates, the government has finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to switch schools and colleges to distance learning.”

But it is very disappointing that, at the end of last school year, they made legal threats to schools to keep them from converting to distance learning, and then made a series of messy announcements at the beginning of this school year. Everyone knows that this is a fast-moving situation, but by being so dogmatic about their plans, ministers need to avoid painting themselves into a corner, particularly though those plans are clearly unraveling.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the education committee of the House of Commons, called for renewed attempts to strengthen school staff’s distance learning and priority vaccines. “I feel for the teachers and support staff who have been working since just before Christmas trying to sort out a testing regime and plan a return to school,” he said.

Boris Johnson, who hours earlier encouraged parents to send their kids back to elementary school this week as secondary schools were trying to set up a testing system, represents another turning point.

The Westminster change came hours after the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said schools would remain closed as part of a national lockdown until next month.

Secretary of Welsh Education Kirsty Williams also declared that by Jan. 18, all schools and colleges would turn to online learning.

She said, “In the first two weeks of the school year, we originally gave schools flexibility to decide when to reopen based on local conditions.”

But it’s now clear that the safest way to go is to provide a national commitment to online learning for the first two weeks of the school year.
Ministers have met in Northern Ireland to discuss their response to the rising crisis.

Principals in England said that on the first day of school, the policy of the government had led to “complete chaos” with confused parents and teachers fearing for their health and safety.

Instead, workers who should have been training for remote learning concentrated on attempting, as mandated by the government, to open elementary school for the beginning of the school year.

In secondary schools, principals worked at full speed over Christmas to make preparations for mass testing of Covid.

While most elementary schools were able to open, as thousands of teachers staged a walkout over health and safety issues, many remained closed due to staff shortages.

Around half of the entire student body in England ended up staying home on Monday, despite the government’s presentation of keeping schools open, as secondary schools remained closed to the majority of students.

Halfon called on the government to collaborate with schools and Ofsted to “ensure that… the disadvantaged do not suffer most from learning loss.” He also raised concerns about the effect on mental wellbeing of further closures, saying, “There is an urgent need to make a decision ü”

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