The majority of schools in the UK have now closed to reduce the spread of coronavirus - and are only open to look after the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Some surveys have suggested that schools now have between 1% and 20% of pupils attending.
Polly Kerr is a senior associate at Tees and has extensive experience in acting for and advising schools and parents in educational matters. Here, she answers some key questions around coronavirus and schools.
How long will schools and colleges be closed for?
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, schools, colleges and childcare providers will be closed to the majority of pupils until further notice.
Children of key workers and vulnerable children can still attend school. Do I qualify as a key worker and does my child have to attend school?
Schools have data to enable them to identify children who fall into the category of a ‘vulnerable child’, including those with EHCPs or with social workers. However, identifying children of key workers is more difficult, particularly as there are still some grey areas around whether certain parents will be key workers under the current guidance published by the Government.
Most schools had already surveyed parents to establish which children may fall into the category of being a child of a key worker so that they could prepare. However if you have not been contacted and believe you are a key worker, requiring your child to attend school, you should make contact with your child’s school as a matter of urgency.
Even if your child falls into one of the categories and is entitled to attend school, this doesn’t mean that you have to send them to school. This is a decision for you. Central Government has issued attendance guidance and registers as part of its toolkit to assist schools in keeping track of children attending but even this is far short of what schools would normally be expected to do in terms of attendance record keeping.
Schools also have to ensure that the provision they offer is safe and whilst staff ratios are being relaxed during this period, schools will need to carefully consider contingency plans or indeed closing if students are put at risk as a result of a severely depleted work force.
If your child is not vulnerable and you are not a key worker, your child cannot attend school.
Will registered childcare providers, schools and colleges be open over Easter holidays for holiday clubs and childcare for the children of key workers?
The government is encouraging where possible, childcare providers, schools and colleges to continue to look after key workers’ children and vulnerable children throughout the Easter holidays.
My son is in Year 11 and is very worried about what will happen with his GCSE grades. How will the government ensure students receive “fair” grades?
Between Ofqual and exam boards, it is likely that they will agree a consistent approach to issuing grades for this years’ exam year students. These grades will, most likely, be based on teacher predictions, and as teachers are expected throughout the course of an academic year to rigorously assess student progress in their courses, this evidence will already be available to schools.
It is also probable that an appeals process will be put in place for those students who wish to appeal their final grade (as they have the right to do under the usual regime of sitting exams under exam conditions) and this may include sitting a set of exams at some time in the future but this is by no means certain.
Will universities/colleges/sixth forms accept these calculated grades?
The government has confirmed that the calculated grades awarded will be formal grades, with the same status as grades awarded in any other year.
University representatives have already confirmed that they expect universities to be flexible and do all they can to support students and ensure they can progress to higher education.
Are schools legally obliged to hold virtual lessons?
The answer to the question as to whether teachers are still required to ‘teach’ students through some form of virtual lesson, is no.
Each school will have put in place multiple methods of delivering work to students so that there is minimal disruption to their learning. This will no doubt now be in full swing using a variety of different online platforms. Even this can present its own challenges however, because the approach requires students to have the infrastructure at home to enable them to continue their learning via the internet and, in some cases, of course, this may not be possible, for example if there is limited or no access to hardware (computers) or the internet.
As such, all options need to be considered and student circumstances taken into account when determining how students can best be supporting during this difficult period. It would therefore be incorrect to prevent schools from considering all options including but not limited to online learning by enforcing virtual lessons in place of any other viable option available to a school that best meets the needs of the school’s demographic.
My child is due to go on a school trip which might get cancelled, will I get my money back?
If a school decides to cancel a trip as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, where there is specific guidance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to say that you should not travel to that jurisdiction, it is likely but not certain that the school can claim some or all of the cost from the insurers and distribute this to parents. In the alternative where schools are offered the opportunity to rearrange a trip, this may prevent payment from insurance but does not mean all is lost for future travel. However, if a school decides to cancel a trip over concerns for the welfare of students and staff in circumstances where travel has not expressly been advised against, it is likely that a claim against insurance would not be possible.
Whilst the school may not be liable to return the monies paid by parents in law, they may feel under an obligation to do so. This could result in five-figure losses to schools per trip and as is the current position, it is likely that there will be multiple trips to be cancelled. A schools budget simply won’t sustain those kind of losses and it is likely that in these uncertain times schools will have to think very carefully about whether to return any monies to parents, where they are not actually liable to do so in law.