Schools in Scotland will close at the end of this week as the response to coronavirus is stepped up.
The plan for mass school closures in Scotland in response to the coronavirus outbreak was announced by first minister Nicola Sturgeon.
In a briefing this afternoon, she said that it was now "inevitable" that schools and nurseries would close, and that it would happen at the end of the week. At around the same time, Wales announced that it would also close schools to pupils from this weekend.
Ms Sturgeon did not rule out that schools could reopen before the summer, but said it should not be assumed that this would happen.
She also said that special support measures would be put in place for three groups: the children of doctors, nurses and other key medical workers; pupils deemed "vulnerable"; and students sitting exams. More detail on that will be laid out in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow.
Question that is most difficult to answer is “how long will this all last” says @NicolaSturgeon - she reiterates that she can’t guarantee schools will reopen after Easter and that they may remain closed until summer hols— Emma Seith (@Emma_Seith) March 18, 2020
Ms Sturgeon said the decision to close schools had been made on the basis of science and also because "more and more schools are approaching a point where they have lost too many staff to continue as normal".
The first minister said "lots of local flexibility" would be required and that more details would be laid out tomorrow. There would not be a "one size fits all" approach across the country.
The "most immediate issue" was students sitting exams and the first minister promised more clarity on that soon.
How will coronavirus affect exams?
Ms Sturgeon said that education secretary John Swinney, who is also deputy first minister, would make a statement to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, in which he will give more detail on "the arrangements we are putting in place", with a particular focus on "what this will mean for vulnerable pupils".
One reason that Ms Sturgeon had previously given for not closing schools before now was that it could force many key medical staff to stay off work to look after their children.
In this afternoon's briefing, she said: "We must ensure that all our doctors, nurses and other critical staff can still work – lives are on the line."
The first minister said: "We are still working out all of the fine detail."
Chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood said school closures would help to "prevent further transmission of this virus".
She added, however, that Scotland as a whole was "definitely" not yet at the "lockdown" stage.
.@NicolaSturgeon says decision to close schools as of the end of the week is a mix of the science and the practical reality- there are fewer teachers to staff schools— Emma Seith (@Emma_Seith) March 18, 2020
EIS union general secretary Larry Flanagan said the decision to close schools "will be welcomed by our members, who have expressed growing concern in recent days over potential increased risk to the health of pupils, staff, their families and the wider community".
He added: "On the issue of supporting home learning during this period, a number of councils are looking at online learning solutions which may offer some provision, although they most certainly should not be seen as a panacea – ensuring equitable access for students is just one challenge.
“We have written, also, to Education Scotland to suggest that rather than every council or school reinventing the wheel in terms of providing learning activities while schools are closed, some national provision would be helpful, perhaps even utilising broadcast channels to engage as many young people as possible."
Meanwhile, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has released a statement on exams, which are due to start on 27 April.
It reads: "The Qualifications Contingency Group, met yesterday to consider the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the 2020 examination timetable, and wider qualifications certification. The group, chaired by the Scottish government, and with membership drawn from across the education system, agreed that it was dealing with a very serious and evolving situation.
"The Scottish government and the SQA fully appreciates the concerns of learners, parents and carers, schools and colleges. In the event of school closures, the Qualifications Contingency Group agreed that every effort should be made to ensure schools remain partially open to allow senior phase pupils to complete learning and be able to submit coursework, in addition to being able to open as examination centres during the diet, should medical and scientific advice allow.
"As you would expect, the SQA is working through a range of scenarios, including in the event that there is significant disruption to the diet. In the meantime, we strongly suggest that schools and colleges continue to prioritise the completion of coursework, including for those subjects with later deadline."
The SQA statement adds: "Our exceptional circumstances service, which allows a school or college who believe that a candidate has suffered, for example bereavement or illness during exams, or has been self-isolating, to inform us of the circumstances and submit alternative evidence of attainment demonstrated by the candidate, will be available. Schools and colleges should be gathering any alternative evidence on candidate performance as they would do in the normal way, and as per our guidance every year, to support any consideration of exceptional circumstances. There is a range of alternative assessment evidence that we can take into account, which can include coursework, class or other assessments. This evidence should inform estimated grades, again as it should every year.
"Markers and invigilators play a critical role in the delivery of Scottish qualifications and their continued support, together with the support of schools and colleges, will be particularly important this year. Currently, marker recruitment is on track and we have additional reserves, if needed. We are reviewing all procedural meetings with a view to using remote methods of delivery wherever possible, and will be communicating directly with individual subject teams to provide further details.
"We recognise that some of our invigilators may not be able to work with us this year, and we will be working with schools and colleges to put in place alternative arrangements for invigilation where needed, in line with our current contingency arrangements for invigilation."
The SQA statement concludes: "We are also strongly encouraging all candidates to sign up to MySQA, our online and text service, as a direct way to receive their results.
"The Scottish government and SQA will continue to review the latest evidence, in consultation with members of the Qualifications Contingency Group, and will communicate further updates as necessary."