All schools are facing closure and this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams are set to be cancelled as North Staffordshire battens down for a third national lockdown.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement tonight following concerns over ‘rapidly escalating’ infections linked to the new variant of coronavirus.
It means schoolchildren – including those who only returned to primary classrooms this morning – could be learning from home until February half-term at the earliest.
Only vulnerable pupils and those from key worker families will be taught on site.
The announcement came as two school leaders’ unions had threatened legal action against the Government for not moving to remote education from the start of term.
The National Education Union (NEU) had also advised its members they had the right to refuse to return to the classroom if they felt conditions were unsafe.
Mr Johnson said primary schools, secondary schools and colleges will move to remote learning from tomorrow. Families will still be able to access nurseries, although it’s not clear how this will affect school-based nursery classes.
He added: “We recognise that this will mean it’s not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal.
“The Education Secretary will work with Ofqual to put in place alternative arrangements.
“We will provide extra support to ensure that pupils entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them while schools are closed and we will distribute more devices to support remote education.
“I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country.
“Parents whose children were in school today may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner. And the answer is simply that we have been doing everything in our power to keep the schools open because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances.”
Secondary schools had already been planning a staggered return, with GCSE and A-level students due to get back on January 11 and other year groups on January 18.
But ministers had initially told primary schools to reopen this week unless they fell within hotspot areas in London and the South East.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s address to the nation, Staffordshire County Council confirmed that it had been notified of only four primaries that were staying shut.
In Stoke-on-Trent, at least one primary is thought to have announced it was shutting to all pupils apart from those classed as vulnerable or from key worker families.
And in the special schools sector, Abbey Hill School, in Meir, had also told parents it would be closed on Monday and Tuesday.
The NEU said some of its 3,500-plus members in Staffordshire had sent letters to their schools, requesting to work from home. The exact number of local teachers issuing so-called section 44 letters is unknown.
Beatrice Harvey, the NEU’s Staffordshire branch secretary, said: “Members are worried for themselves and their families. They are also worried for the children.”
She stressed the sheer variety of schools in the county meant teachers were facing different challenges.
“You have primary schools with 50 pupils and others with more than 500. Some classrooms are a lot more roomy and the class sizes are smaller.
“But others are teaching in cramped conditions where adequate ventilation isn’t possible,” she added.
Ms Harvey claimed the Government should have acted sooner in implementing tougher restrictions.
At Seabridge Primary, it is understood several classes of children had been told to stay at home from today. The school would not comment on whether this was linked to staffing shortages following the NEU’s advice.
But in a statement, the school said: “The school continues to adhere to all advice provided by the Department for Education and prioritise the ongoing needs of our children, staff and parents.”
The county council wrote to headteachers at the weekend, urging them to update their school risk assessments. The letter said the authority would support individual schools that faced ‘difficult judgements’ in providing on-site teaching.
Councillor Jonathan Price, cabinet member for education in Staffordshire, praised schools for their ‘determination’ to keep children’s learning going.
He said: “We are continuing to offer schools ongoing support and advice, and will work with them throughout the coming term.”