Teachers are prepared for a “challenging” situation amid concerns more pupils than expected could turn up on Monday despite schools being officially closed as the UK fights to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Parents have been warned they could be in for “difficult conversations” if they take their children to school when they have an alternative means of ensuring they are looked after.
The Department for Education has urged parents to keep their children at home unless their work is deemed “critical” to the country’s response to Covid-19 and they have no other childcare option.
It said that, if required, schools can ask for “simple evidence that the parent in question is a critical worker, such as their work ID badge or pay slip”.
The Government said children of so-called key workers – including medics, police and food distribution staff – are able to attend school so they can be looked after while their parents help in the fight against the virus.
Please share with other parents.— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 22, 2020
If your work is not critical in the response to Coronavirus then please keep your child at home.#StayHomeSaveLives #coronavirus
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Guidance, issued on Friday, listed the relevant occupations and said children with “at least one parent or carer” who is considered critical “can attend school if required”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said sending a child to school is an emergency measure which should be seen “as a last resort”.
He said: “It is likely that more children than expected will turn up at school and that there may be less availability of staff if more have had to self-isolate or have become ill over the weekend.
“So, the situation will be challenging today, and it will take some time to establish a more settled pattern.”
He said parents need to be prepared that schools will have to prioritise and that not every child will get a place, a sentiment echoed by the National Education Union (NEU).
Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said the schools can only operate to help during this outbreak “if everyone plays fair”.
She said: “If schools are to limit their intake during the crisis, school leaders and teachers must exercise their professional judgment.
“There may have to be some difficult conversations with parents, which could include saying that the school cannot accommodate your child and remain safe.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), urged parents not to mistake the spirit of battling on for behaviour that is instead reckless.
He said: “As many children as possible should stay away from school. To do otherwise will risk the health of your family and the successful response to Covid-19.
“Please do not confuse ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ with recklessness.”
He also urged employers not to take advantage of the lengthy list of key workers in order to keep their staff in work.
He said: “My appeal to companies and other employers: Please do not interpret the key workers lists liberally for your own ends.
“Do not put profit over people. School places are there for the most vulnerable and to keep truly crucial operations running.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “If your work is not critical in the response to coronavirus then please keep your child at home. This will help to halt the spread of the virus, protect the NHS and save lives.
“We will be closely monitoring what is happening in schools and will ensure they get the support they need in the weeks and months ahead.”
Schools will not be expected to take a normal attendance register, but will be asked to submit a daily report stating whether they are open and how many children and staff are in school so capacity can be tracked, the department said.
The department has also published guidance on vulnerable children, with schools being asked to have a process in place to check on the welfare of any children in need who do not continue to come to school, to ensure they do not fall through the gaps.
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said it is “imperative” that different agencies understand who is responsible for children at home and added that social workers “will need continued support and resources to support those in isolation”.
He said: “We are living in a public health emergency and it’s never been more important for everyone to play their part in recognising and reporting abuse and neglect. Anyone with concerns about a child can contact the NSPCC Helpline for professional advice.”