Schools across England will be shut down from Friday until further notice as the coronavirus crisis deteriorates, the government has announced.
The move was unveiled by education secretary Gavin Williamson and it mirrors Scotland and Wales, where Friday will be the last day of normal lessons.
However, powers in emergency legislation – to be passed by the Commons within days – will allow ministers to force some schools to remain open for the children of key workers.
It means some youngsters will go to different schools, if their own has been shut down, relieving their parents of childcare responsibilities if they are needed to fight the outbreak.
A government source told The Independent: “The definition of key workers will be broader than just people working in the NHS.”
He is expected to promise that steps will be taken to ensure the poorest children can still receive free daily meals – after warnings they will otherwise go hungry.
Schools in Northern Ireland will close to pupils from 5pm on Wednesday, although teachers will attend for another two days, Stormont sources have said.
The Welsh government has announced plans to close its schools by Friday amid the outbreak.
And first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said schools in Scotland will shut their doors to pupils later this week.
It comes after a growing number of schools had already decided to close fully or partially amid staff shortages.
A school in north London closed its doors to all children except those of key workers on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a number of top private schools across the country also decided to shut amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Headteachers have warned that keeping schools open has become “increasingly untenable” as staff are self-isolating.
The National Education Union (NEU) has called for school closures “at least for some time and at least in some areas”.
Speaking to The Independent, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Schools are mostly closing partially. But in some areas of London, schools are closed fully.
“One school in Camden is closed because there are too many staff in the high-risk groups and the virus has broken out among the children. So it is not a safe environment for those teachers to be there.”
On leaders’ decisions to partially close, she added: “We are hearing that some schools are keeping open for key workers’ children, but also children on free school meals and children who they feel are vulnerable.
“It has really ramped up in the last couple of days.”
A lot of parents in London have also been keeping their children off school this week and Dr Bousted described the school drop-off on Wednesday morning as being like a “ghost town”.
Dr Bousted said she thinks it is “unlikely” that most GCSE exams will be able to take place in the summer term.
“You have to ask the question whether parents, which might be the peak of the virus, are going to be prepared to let their children sit in a hall with 200 other children doing 35 hours of exam or more.”
Fiona Boulton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the most prestigious private schools, said: “This virus knows no boundaries and independent schools are struggling alongside their colleagues in the state sector to keep open for as long as possible.
“This is becoming increasingly difficult as staff are obliged to self-isolate or look after family members, and boarding school pupils with symptoms have to be separated from other children.”
Ms Boulton, head of Guildford High School, added: “Heads who have had to close their schools have done so with a heavy heart because normal operations have become unsustainable and their pupils are better served by moving to online learning.
“Some will be able to keep their doors open to key workers, according to their resource.”