As schools close and move back to remote learning, PM warns coming weeks could be the ‘hardest yet’

With Christmas festivities driving another spike in COVID-19 cases, education providers have once again been ordered to close their doors after being urged to return to campus for just one day

The UK has entered its third national lockdown, with education providers across the nation reverting back to remote learning from today (5 January), on the second day of the new term.

In a televised address last night, prime minister Boris Johnson imposed the toughest restrictions the country has seen since the first national lockdown in March last year, with the government attempting to quell the spike in coronavirus cases following the Christmas break.

The PM ordered citizens to stay indoors other than for limited exceptions, as new figures show that the UK is set to exceed 100,000 COVID-related deaths by the end of January without rapid intervention. Outdoor exercise has once again been limited to once a day per person, and all non-essential shops were told to close from Monday night.

Speaking from Downing Street, the PM warned that the next few weeks could be the “hardest yet” since the crisis began last year, adding that he believed the country was entering “the last phase of the struggle”, with those in the top four priority groups (care home residents and their carers, citizens aged 70+, all frontline health and social care workers, and the clinically extremely vulnerable) being offered the first vaccine dose by mid-February.

The new restrictions will be enforced for at least seven weeks, subject to review in the February half term. On Tuesday, secretary of state Michael Gove said the new lockdown could stay in place until March, while some restrictions could remain even longer in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.

The government has been criticised for its decision to close education institutes just one day after urging millions of students to return to campus after the Christmas break, noting that parents would “reasonably ask why we did not make the decision sooner”, and that he understands “the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country”.

What does this mean for education providers?

England

Schools of every education levels have shifted back to online teaching and learning, except for children of key workers and vulnerable children. Remote learning will remain in place from 5 January until February half term at least.

PM Boris Johnson confirmed “this will mean it is not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal”.

In light of this, education secretary Gavin Williamson will work with Ofqual to establish “alternative arrangements” for awarding grades for the academic year 2020/21.


From the archive: 36% of A-level grades in England downgraded by Ofqual algorithm


Following Williamson’s promise for the government to provide laptops and tablets for disadvantaged students last April, the education secretary has once again pledged to provide devices to support students while learning from home.

On top of this, Williamson said the government will provide additional support to ensure students entitled to free school meals continue to receive them while schools are closed.

University students who travelled home for Christmas, on the other hand, will now not be able to return to campus until mid-February, and must continue to study their programmes online where possible. On-campus classes will only continue for a select number of courses, such as medicine.

Nurseries and other early years care settings, as well as special schools, will stay open, while vulnerable children and children of key workers can continue to use registered childcare and childminders.

Wales

All schools and colleges will deliver remote education until 18 January, with free school meals being granted to eligible students throughout this period.

Schools across the country, at primary and secondary level, will stay open for vulnerable children and children of key workers.

The Welsh government stated that special schools and pupil referral units will remain open “if possible”.

Exams and assessments are currently still scheduled to go ahead as planned, with students being permitted to travel to school or college to undertake them where necessary. That said, GCSE, AS and A-level exams for summer 2021 across Wales had already been cancelled last year.

Welsh universities are staggering their start time, and students enrolled in the country’s higher education system will not return for face-to-face tuition until further notice.

Scotland

The Scottish government has taken a different approach, extending the Christmas holidays until 11 January.

Both primary and secondary schools across the nation are to stay closed until 1 February, with students continuing their education online until the situation is reviewed in mid-January. First minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that this includes nurseries, but does not apply to vulnerable children or those whose parents are key workers, who are permitted to return to school at the end of the Christmas holidays.

Northern Ireland

Remote learning for schools will only remain for a short period, according to first minister Arlene Foster.

Primary students will be taught online from 4–8 January, while for secondary students in Years 8–11, remote learning will stay in place until the end of the month.

Regarding the closures, Atif Mahmood, CEO of Teacherly, commented: “Given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the UK, schools closing their doors nationwide comes as no surprise. Keeping up with the ever-changing expectations is a logistical nightmare for schools’ senior leadership, but a small silver lining is that the digital knowledge gained in the past 12 months means teachers enter this shutdown with a better sense of what works best to educate their students remotely. However, in order to make teaching away from school feasible, all students require the right devices at home to learn effectively.

“With schools shut, protecting the right of every child to a free education starts with ensuring all students can access academic and pastoral support wherever and whenever they need it. In a short space of time, schools have worked autonomously, and with little help from the government, to set up remote teaching software so that teachers can continue to educate pupils at home. But in order to access the software, students and schools also require the right hardware to make remote teaching feasible. This isn’t something that should fall on schools to provide – it is the responsibility of the government.”

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