Coronavirus: School leaders warn of struggle to care for key workers’ children

The list of parents deemed key workers in the fight against coronavirus is so extensive that schools might struggle to cope with the volume of children still attending despite closures, leaders have warned.

Frontline health and social care staff, people involved in food production and delivery, and utility workers are among a lengthy list of workers classed as “essential” to the Covid-19 response.

The Government published the list just after midnight on Friday – later than expected – outlining the occupations of parents whose children may continue to be cared for at school amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Doctors, nurses, police, journalists and teachers themselves are on the list which has been separated into eight categories, including health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, and transport.

Workers involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery are also included, along with “administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of the Covid-19 response” in local and national government.

Staff needed for “essential financial services provision”, such as bank workers, key telecommunications staff and postal services and delivery workers are also included.

The Department for Education said children with at least one parent or carer identified as critical workers by the Government could send their children to school if required.

The department said: “If your work is critical to the Covid-19 response, or you work in one of the critical sectors listed below, and you cannot keep your child safe at home, then your children will be prioritised for education provision.”

But concerns have been raised around the ability of schools operating with a smaller staff to cope with the number of children who might fall into the listed categories.

And parents have been warned the provision will more likely be childcare than an educational one.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned parents they must not assume Monday will be “business as usual”.

Urging parents to keep their children at home “if at all possible”, he said: “The key worker list is extensive and schools will not be able to cope with the number of children who could potentially arrive on Monday morning.

“Schools will endeavour to do their best to provide continuity of learning for all children whether at home or in school, but the provision in school is likely to be more akin to childcare than a normal timetable.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said continuing to send children to school should be a “last resort, for the minority of key workers, who have no alternative”.

He added: “School leaders have many questions that remain unanswered about how this will work in practice.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said if lots of pupils are still attending school it will not help stop the spread of the virus.

She said the list “could result in some schools having the majority of pupils attending”.

She added: “Schools can only accommodate a limited number of children and the fewer children making the journey to school, and the fewer children in educational settings, the lower the risk that the virus can spread.”

The Department for Education said it expected the majority of educational establishments to stay open where required – but recognised it may be “impossible” for small rural schools.

It said when a school is unable to stay open, it would work with local officials to find an alternative setting for pupils, as well as providing transport arrangements.

Coronavirus cases in the UK
Coronavirus cases in the UK

Meanwhile nursery leaders called for urgent clarity on whether childminders are included on the list, and raised concerns around the financial challenges for nurseries if they have to close.

Many English schools will stop operating on Friday afternoon until further notice, as will nurseries, colleges and childminders.

Special schools are to remain open during the closures.

In Scotland and Wales, all schools will have closed by Friday, and schools in Northern Ireland are due to shut from Monday.

After schools shut their gates from Friday afternoon, they will remain closed for most pupils – for the vast majority of pupils – until further notice.

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— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 18, 2020

Schools are also awaiting guidance on how pupils will receive exam grades, after it was announced that GCSEs and A-levels in England and Wales will be cancelled.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the Government would work with schools, colleges and England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, “to ensure children get the qualifications they need”.

School leaders have said they expect that grades will be based on teacher assessment and evidence of internal assessment – such as mock exams – which could then be submitted to the exam boards to check.