Coronavirus: UK schools prepare for online classes in event of widespread closures

Schools in the UK are preparing online learning resources, getting work ready for pupils to take home and cancelling events as they brace for potential closures due to coronavirus.

As part of the government’s “battle plan”, schools may be forced to close if the outbreak worsens. However, Public Health England’s advice is for them to stay open unless there is a positive case. 

But school staff have begun discussing how to best minimise disruption to pupils’ learning and exam preparation in the event of widespread school closures to contain the spread of the virus.

This follows Italy’s announcement that it will close all schools and universities for a week and a half in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, as the death toll in the country rose to 107.

One school in the UK is having a training day to ensure staff can teach pupils remotely through “virtual education”. Work booklets are also being produced which can be sent home with children. 

Meanwhile, other schools are testing whether their email systems work and are assessing whether students can actually work from home as part of preparations for potential closures. 

Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, which runs three schools, has written to parents about plans to use online teaching platforms if they are forced to close for a long period of time. 

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Cairns said: “I hope the school will not have to close but I understand why the government is considering it because children are great spreaders of illness.

“My main concern has been public exam classes because psychologically it can be quite upsetting for a kid close to a GCSE or A-level exam to be suddenly asked to leave school.

He added: “Schools have got to all be doing this now just in case. Heads have got to make sure that within an hour they can say the school day carries on as normal from home.”

The school has also taken the decision this week to cancel sports tournaments with other schools in the UK for the foreseeable future amid coronavirus fears, and it is considering cancelling some trips abroad. 

“If schools become heavily infected and children get coronavirus then they may infect their parents and then their grandparents. I think we have a social obligation to limit travel and large meetings,” he said. 

Ian Phillips, chair of the Independent Schools Council’s digital strategy group, said a number of heads in the UK have begun talking about how to ensure they can still teach if they have to close. 

“This is a worrying situation and everyone is talking about it,” said Mr Phillips, who is director of computing ICT at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School. “Schools are talking about what would be realistic.” 

Online lessons and using videos to teach are being considered by some schools, while staff are assessing what devices students have to see if home learning is possible, he added.

Schools in Hong Kong, China and Japan have already been shut for weeks because of coronavirus. 

Mark Steed, principal of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong, has been teaching pupils remotely since the school closed in January and UK headteachers have approached him for advice. 

Speaking to The Independent, he said: “School leaders are sharing best practice on how to prepare online learning platforms. People are trying to learn from the experience we have had out in Hong Kong. 

“I think what people haven’t thought about are the welfare issues and the strain on staff over a long period of time. It really is a marathon. It isn’t like a couple of days off for snow day.”

On the other challenges that home learning has posed, Mr Steed added: “This has shown that you need technology. We have had to lend laptops to people.

“We have a situation where two or three laptops are at home but there are two adults and three children trying to work. Kids are fighting over the kit.” 

And the situation is likely to be worse for state school pupils in the UK who may struggle to access any digital devices at home for their studies, headteachers have warned. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Extended school closures would be an unprecedented step, and schools would require guidance and support from the government. The priority must be to minimise the disruption to the learning of students. 

“There are a number of ways in which this could be achieved through the use of online learning support – resources, assessment and feedback – as well as pre-prepared resources such as video tutorials. However, the practicalities need to be carefully considered. 

“For example, this sort of learning support requires students to have the necessary technology, and any online programmes require internet access. This would require planning and resourcing.”

He added: “We will be looking for the Department for Education (DfE) to talk with us about detailed contingency planning so that we are able to provide the perspective of school and college leaders.”

Earlier this week the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said he did not recommend the “cancelling of mass events” and he urged for schools to remain open unless there is both a positive case of coronavirus. 

But 10 schools have closed down in the UK so far and other schools have asked pupils to self-isolate. 

The DfE said Public Health England has issued guidance to help schools give advice to pupils, students, staff, parents or carers. A DfE helpline has also been set up to manage increasing queries.

A government spokesperson said: “Our action plan sets out measures to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak that are reasonable, proportionate and based on the latest scientific evidence. They will be continually kept under review and the impact of all measures will be carefully considered.”

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