Coronavirus: Your complete planning guide for closures

School closures - or partial closures - will happen in the future, and it is important to plan as early as possible. Here is a complete guide to what you need to consider.

coronavirus school closures

The coronavirus threat is reaching the point where schools around the country are preparing for possible closure to try to halt the spread of the disease.

Schools closing would have a huge impact, especially for those preparing for Sats, GCSEs and A-level exams. Leaders will also have many questions: can primary pupils can be expected to sit and learn remotely? Will secondary age pupils simply find ways for systems not to work? What if families don’t have the technologies teachers need pupils to use?

And for teachers: how long may a remote teaching day last? What issues need to be considered for pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND)? Will parents have to also be trained to facilitate what a teacher is trying to achieve through a remote teaching session?

Below, we try to answer all these questions and more. Here is a contents list – you can click on each chapter if you want to jump straight to it. 

Is there any advice on teaching during a closure from the Department for Education?

At present, the Department for Education (DfE) says it is not offering specific guidance on teaching when schools are closed ahead of any potential closures, as the current advice from Public Health England is that schools are expected to remain open.

Clearly, though, there is an expectation that if schools do close, some form of education will have to continue. 

A spokesperson told Tes: “Public health is clearly the priority but that does not change our belief that no child should miss out on any education unless absolutely necessary.”

James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders’ union, says his organisation is working with the DfE to “ensure they consider all scenarios and possible eventualities, and we are urging them to continually review and update their advice to schools. This includes scenario planning in the event of regional or national school closures.”

Until that advice arrives, though, schools are on their own in planning for closure. So we have gathered the below advice.

What are the essential statistics that will impact attempts to teach during any closure?

If you are expecting parental assistance in a child’s education, you may encounter some issues. 

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 75.8 per cent of families with their youngest dependent child aged 5-16 have both parents in work or a lone parent in work. 

With the ONS estimating there are 19 million families in the UK, this suggests that as many as 14-15 million households may be affected by closures in terms of having to balance their work with unexpected childcare commitments.

Many parents will likely not have time to be stand-in teachers or even teaching assistants –unless they negotiate time off with their employer. 

Of course, many teachers are also parents of young children. Data from the DfE shows that there are 320,387 teachers aged between 25 and 54. This equates to around 70 per cent of the workforce and no doubt a large portion of these teachers – if we follow the national data – will also be parents. 

This will require some flexibility from school leaders.

Kirsty Grundy, a principal from Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust, says in the primary schools within the trust, there is an awareness that staff may well have to be acting as parents at the same time as teachers while working remotely.

“[We] have talked to teachers about expectations on a daily and weekly basis in terms of setting tasks and activities online to continue the learning as best as possible – but also to be considerate as to how staff may have their own families with them, too. It’s about ensuring that balance for families and our own staff.”

Technology is being touted as the saviour to the remote teaching situation but there are many issues around this to consider, not least the reality that many pupils may not have the right devices at home. 

For example, ONS data shows that 7 per cent of homes in the UK do not have internet connections – fixed or mobile. This means almost 2 million homes have no internet, which will likely include some with children who will not have the ability to get online to be taught remotely.

It could also be the case that some households only have limited numbers of devices that can access online resources in a manner suitable for learning – chiefly a laptop or tablet with a keyboard – and so for households with multiple children working from home, this may prove difficult to manage. 

A place to work is also key. Unfortunately, many children do not live in suitable housing for a stable home working environment, with many children living in overcrowded homes, where a desk or space to work might not be available, or even worse, affected by homelessness.

Shelter estimates 135,000 children in Britain are homeless, living in temporary accommodation such as hotels, B&Bs or hostels. Clearly, this will not provide them with the right sort of home learning set-up to adequately engage in online teaching.

Last, many schools are a lifeline in providing food to disadvantaged children. Charity Sustain estimates that for a third of children, the school dinner is their main meal of the day. 

This may well mean teachers are trying to work with children not receiving adequate nutrition to help them focus during a school day that is already made harder by the fact that it is being carried out remotely.


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Basic checks ahead of any closure

How up to date is the school contacts database?

A good starting point before any closures are put into place is to try to ensure all core communications details for parents are up to date, as Jodie Lopez, a former primary school teacher turned ed tech business consultant, explains.

“Before any quarantine, ask parents to confirm email addresses and where you can set up emails for students – email is a way to keep updating with info, resources, new tools you have got up and running,” she says. 

Amy Forrester, an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria, says schools should also ensure “communications can be carried out remotely” so that any emails that need to be sent can be done so from any location.

Bowen adds that schools should look at this as an extension of their “snow day” or emergency closure planning. “It’s worth noting that virtually all schools will have existing procedures in place for handling unexpected closures. This will include how they intend to communicate with parents, and these will prove helpful in the event that they are forced to close,” he says.

However, one teacher told Tes anonymously that many parents in their area refuse to provide email contact information and they have also discovered the messaging system they use appears unable to be accessed remotely – meaning workarounds are having to be found.

Clearly, being aware of these issues and stress testing the system before a school closes is crucial. 

Forrester adds that the advice is the same for any virtual learning environments (see below for more). These will need to be tested to make sure they can handle the potential upturn in traffic that could occur if an entire school and its staff are attempting to log in across a school day.

Finally, Lopez says schools should make sure they do not overlook the school website as a core information point for parents and pupils, including access to teaching resources.

“The school website will be the best aggregator of information and links if you previously had no online learning capability,” she says.

Plan your adjusted timetable

You need to decide now how long the school day should last. Is it possible to stick to a 9-3 or should you condense it?

Jennie Devine, a principal of a school on lockdown in Milan, Italy, says the initial impact of closure on the timetable was that staff worked even longer hours, as they attempted to reply to every comment and response they received from pupils, taking up a lot of time.

“During the first four days of online learning, teachers were extremely responsive and felt that every comment or query had to be dealt with immediately as they were committed to making the online learning a success,” she says. 

However, this led to staff feeling exhausted after “being chained to the computer” for several hours a day. 

As such, she says schools need to make it clear that teachers are not there to work 24/7 and usual working hours should remain the norm.

The other issue is that – as Al McConville, director of learning and innovation at Bedales School, notes – remote working could, in theory, require pupils and teachers to be at a screen all day long, which is hardly ideal.

As such, he says teachers need to factor this into their work provisions for a remote working day. 

“I think you’d want to have a mix of setting some reading and writing tasks, and perhaps some virtual face-to-face activity,” he adds.

Despite these concerns, Louise Lewis, research lead and deputy head of science in a Yorkshire secondary school, says she thinks it may be the case that teachers have to accept the reality that days will be longer and require more screen time than usual.

“Without being able to communicate face to face, a screen is our only viable interface. I anticipate it will increase workload in the first instance but, after that, I anticipate working a regular teaching day,” she says.

Specific issues for primary schools

For primary-aged pupils, there are many complications to the idea of remote teaching – from how long pupils can spend in front of screens to how involved parents may have to be in any remote schooling.

Primary headteacher Ruth Luzmore says she is already considering how this may affect how staff can deliver teaching to pupils, given that parents may have to be involved.

“Early years and younger year groups in particular, who are used to much more play-based learning, will be at home – so I will need my staff to produce some quick guides for families for activities using everyday objects,” she explains. 

Is digital teaching viable for the primary age group? Perhaps for the older year groups, but in early years foundation stage and key stage 1?

An international teacher already affected by the shutdown told Tes that for these year groups, teachers are providing pre-recorded lectures for pupils via Google Classroom, with teachers then expected to be online and answer questions in real-time during their “lessons”.

But how many children at primary will have a laptop? And if they do, how many will share them with siblings? 

“We did a last-minute survey of the students who had access to laptop/tablets at home and whether they share them or not.  A handful had nothing, while the vast majority had something but were sharing it with up to four siblings,” reveals Luzmore.

Maaria Khan, a Year 6 lead at a primary school in the North of England, also has this issue: “I work in a very disadvantaged area and we would find some of our children would not be able to access things online, so this would be difficult to do.”

If you come to the realisation there are digital shortfalls some pupils will experience, Lopez says teachers could look to produce quick booklets that can be sent home to ensure some teaching can take place throughout the school day, led by parents.

“I would produce booklets in younger years of just a page a day of activities to do at home. One page for each day – a bit of handwriting/spelling, sounds or word of the day with an activity, a bit of maths then some sort of project or activity that keeps them busy and entertained using stuff around the house,” she says.

Khan says this is something her school has considered but that, for pupils without the ability to be contacted, this may not prove of much use.

“We have also thought about sending packs of learning home, but where is the teaching when it comes to that? Do we just let them access Google and figure it out or do we have an alternative?” she asks. 

Furthermore, even if all pupils do have a device, another issue that has to be considered is screen time for young children.

World Health Organisation guidance says those aged 3-4 should only spend a maximum of an hour at a time in front of a screen, while most parents and teachers will not want pupils staring at a screen for an entire school day.

All in all, as Devine notes, it may well be the case primary teachers have to accept the reality is that teaching a normal day is just not possible in a remote learning situation.

“For our early years and primary sections, we have had to reduce the amount of work as students were taking twice as long to complete tasks,” she says.

“This has meant totally new approaches to planning and content to ensure that we deliver objectives in a timely manner.”

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Specific issues for secondary schools

With children of secondary age, there are more opportunities for pupils to learn from home autonomously, and they may be more likely to have their own device to use to access online resources, compared with younger children.

But there is still a risk they will not engage in remote learning.

“I think every school and teacher will be concerned about the students who will not engage with work online. There will be parents who won’t hold their children to account if they’re completing work at home and this is also a concern,” says Forrester.

Keziah Featherstone, head of school at Q3 Academy Tipton in Birmingham, notes, too, that children can be adept at finding ways around work in more subtle ways than simply not engaging: “As can be seen from what has happened in China, children are very astute at sabotaging platforms they don’t want to use.”

However, for Lewis, schools should make it clear before any quarantine begins that not engaging in work will lead to the same sort of behavioural outcomes as in-school transgressions.

“If students are not engaging, we will still be able to contact parents via our communication system,” she says. “If this fails, it will lead to normal sanctions being applied upon re-opening of school. For us, this includes lunchtime student support and after-school detentions, where they will need to complete work they may have failed to do while school was closed.”

Another teacher working overseas who has already been affected by a lockdown told Tes that they have also taken this approach to online lessons.

“Teachers are expected to be online and answer questions and queries in real time during their lessons,” they say. “Students are expected to complete tasks in ‘class time’. We have almost 100 per cent attendance to these sessions and anyone who is not logged on is counted as absent, with middle-school parents being contacted for any unexcused absences.”

The importance of engaging in work set will be particularly key for pupils facing GCSE and A-level assessments and, as such, Forrester says they have to be a school’s priority.

“The A-level and GCSE kids would take priority,” she says. “We’d then look at ensuring provision for the rest of the students, prioritising Years 12 and 10 first, then working our way down.”

Lopez also makes this point, saying that schools have to prioritise exam year groups over others.

“Any school-created resources should focus on exam years, and passive resources from other sources will do for everyone else,” she says.

Lewis is creating schemes of work around key topics for lower year groups to focus on while they are not in school.

“We are providing students with lesson sequences that include: lesson title, specification reference, link to online resources, link to an online video from Youtube (eg, FreeScienceLessons).

“Online resources will include access to online textbooks (which will be emailed to students), plus assignments set via Seneca, which we can remotely monitor and assess progress.” 

“We are starting to have conversations with students to clearly identify who does and doesn't have access to tech, and they will be provided with printed packs of the above.”

This may be an obvious workaround to this issue, but Forrester says she worries that the tech divide between pupils will be made even starker by having to work remotely.

“I’d also be concerned about those without access to resources such as computers, internet, printers, laptops etc. Essentially, all this does is further widen the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged students yet again,” she says.


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Specific concerns around SEND

Students with SEND who receive extra support in school will need more consideration if schools close. 

A particular issue that could present itself is with teaching assistants who work with SEND students being unable to provide the bespoke and often incident-specific support that pupils require, notes Ginny Bootman, a SEND coordinator (Sendco) within Evolve Church Academy, South Northants.

“Some TAs provide 1:1 interventions that are bespoke due to specific needs, which may be with regard to speech therapy, physiotherapy and sensory issues,” she says. “Skilled TAs change and respond to situations as they arise alongside the expertise of the class teacher in an organic way. To replicate this in a home situation would be very challenging.”

At a more general level, teachers would need to be considerate of the fact that, for some, the whole upheaval of changing routines can mean expecting learning to happen is unfair. And acknowledgement of tweaks needed to the timetables of some pupils will also need to be made. 

“For example, children with specific needs have subtle changes to their curriculum, such as sensory breaks that are essential to help them realign,” says Bootman. 

While there do not appear to be easy answers to this issue, schools should consider how this may affect SEND pupils and discuss with parents and TAs if there are feasible workarounds to address this issue before it happens – rather than if it becomes a new, unknown reality.

Specific issues for boarding schools

For boarding schools, the situation is slightly different in that they cannot just close overnight and tell pupils not to come in.

As such, the Boarding School Association says boarding settings should be “considering the logistical arrangements for keeping boarders safe, fed and watered, under any such restrictions, especially if a case should develop within the school community.”

It suggests “stress testing” any plans in place for dealing with such a situation, especially given the sharp increase in cases being reported. 

“These [plans] include sudden restrictions on travel, school closures and curtailment of events and public gatherings.” 

However, this does not mean they cannot close at all, with most boarding schools requiring pupils to have a nearby guardian they can stay with as normal practice, as McConville explains.

“We regularly close for long weekends when no one is allowed to stay on at school, so obviously for international students, they don’t go home at this time but stay with a guardian. I would imagine most boarding schools operate on this model, so would be able to close if required,” he explains.

Conversely, though, some boarding schools in Scotland are seeking permission to stay open over the Easter break so they can continue to look after pupils who are unable to return to countries like China that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Specific issues for PRUs

Pupil referral units (PRUs) will have many of the same challenges as other schools, but Steve Howell, headteacher of City of Birmingham School, explains there will be some unique issues, too. 

“The safeguarding elements are the biggest concern for us – we know we have a higher-than-average proportion of children in need, child protection cases and looked-after children, and so there is just a greater risk when they are not at school.

“We are trying to work out how we could at least maintain a telephone contact on a rolling programme but, inevitably, that is challenging and trying to second guess what any school closure may look like is tough.”

He notes, too, that the disruption to normal learning may hit PRU pupils harder than those in mainstream settings.

“We know that our kids have missed loads of chunks [of education] and this is a crucial time for them, in terms of exams…I am worried some of our children will be hard to re-engage after we re-open," he notes.

“We know also know that in holidays, our children are more vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activity – that could be an added strain on other services.”

Effective working with other government services and pre-planning with those services is essential. Also, working out how you are going to engage with children during the period of closure will require some innovative ideas.

Specific issues for special schools

Special schools will also be heavily impacted by any closure in terms of how staff can continue to engage with pupils.

Jarlath O'Brien, a former special school headteacher and leader of a special school academy chain, says that schools may face closure due to low staffing numbers, regardless of whether closures are enforced on schools.

“Staffing ratios are very tight, so even if schools aren't closed by the government, special schools are planning what to do if a number of their staff cannot attend due to self-isolation or sickness, either of themselves or their own children,” he says.

“This is because of the significant health and support needs of some of the children requiring certain levels of staffing. Options such as masterclasses of 60, 90 or 120 pupils in the hall with one teacher are simply unworkable, and, more importantly, not safe.”

He adds that given special school children often have specific transport requirements to attend an educational setting, the impact from the coronavirus on those providing this transport could also provide problematic and workarounds may need to be considered.

“Many special school students get a taxi or a minibus to school each day, often travelling long distances. Sick drivers and/or escorts make for some children being unable to get to school, even if schools remain open.”

Advice for early years settings

For early years settings, there are also issues to consider, and Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance says that, despite the current advice, it would be prudent for settings to consider there remote working strategies.

"It would be sensible for providers to at least consider what they might do in such a situation [of a closure].

“’This would include how they would communicate in a clear and timely way to parents, and what support they might be able to offer them in identifying alternative childcare.”

As noted earlier, the importance of ensuring contact information is stored, correct and can be utilised remotely to help with this should therefore be a key focus for early years settings at present.

On the learning side, the organisation says it is unlikely any form of remote learning or engagement can take place. While this may not have quite the same impact as students facing exams who miss out on teaching time, for staff the impact could be notable, says Mr Leitch.

"If a setting was forced to close down temporarily due to coronavirus, this would be likely to have a significant financial impact as they would still be required to pay staff wages, mortgages and rents, and other fixed costs.”

As result, he says that the organisation has written to the DfE asking for urgent guidance on whether or not local authorities are still required to pay providers “free entitlement” funding in the case of closure. They are also hoping to find out what additional financial support the government is willing and able to provide to mitigate the loss of private parental fees as well.

"Many early years providers are already facing severe financial challenges, and so the government must step up, and soon, to ensure that coronavirus doesn't have a last damaging effect on an already struggling sector,” he adds.

How much training will staff need?

While the rise in technology systems, such as cloud tools, does make it far more feasible for teachers to continue to teach remotely, there are also many issues that need to be considered to ensure it delivers the maximum possible benefits.

Firs is the issue that teachers may themselves be reluctant or lack the skills to use the tools required to teach remotely – perhaps having never really believed they would be required to use them.

However, Devine says she was surprised to find that even “self-proclaimed technophobes” have risen to the challenge of online provision since it became clear it would be required.

“We had expected much more resistance to the adoption of new teaching methods, but with support communities, training and mentoring, all of the staff are on board, albeit after a few challenging days,” she says. 

This is positive to hear but also shows the reality that many teachers are unskilled in the use of the platforms they now need to use, leaving them in a position of having to try to learn how to use new systems, and use them effectively, at the moment they are most needed.

“Schools often have Office365 or Google Apps for Education set up already but may not have fully used it before with students,” notes Lopez.

She says schools should run crash courses on how to use any remote working tools, particularly for teachers with pupils facing high-stakes assessments, to try to help get them up to speed as quickly as possible.

“There is a lot of support for these in YouTube videos, too, so sharing links with staff to those would be useful,” she adds.

Luzmore says she is preparing for staff to work in this way and is hoping to fit in training before any potential closures occur.

“We are looking to set up Google Classroom, as we use Google as our email platform here, so it will be the easiest (and free) tech to get going,” she says. “I’ve watched a few of the videos and am pretty satisfied with the tech and functionality but I am concerned about not having it done in time or staff trained on how to do it.”

Simon Baddeley, a secondary English teacher and Microsoft innovative educator expert, urges schools and teachers to try to use a system from the point of view of a student to see the reality of how it is used by an end-user, rather than the teacher side.

“However you choose to keep your students learning, do a dry run first. Log in as a student and experience it as they would – and do it on a mobile phone,” he says. “That is how they are most likely to be accessing it unless you know otherwise.”

What tech will you likely be using?

Most schools already use Google and Microsoft systems within their teaching environment. A teacher in Hong Kong, Luis Moreno, has written for Tes about how these tools can be easily used for remote learning.

“For example, Google Meet can be used to check attendance, while Google Classroom lets you upload resources and set deadlines, allows students to turn in work they have done and, importantly, lets you mark it and send back the corrections,” he says. 

In fact, both Microsoft and Google have been touting the availability of their teaching tools, including boosting services for educators during the crisis, particularly video conferencing tools.

For example, Google has said its G Suite for Education platform will offer its advanced Hangouts Meet video conferencing tools to all users of the platform for free until 1 July.

This includes the ability to host calls with up to 250 participants, live stream to up to 100,000 viewers, and record meetings and save them for future reference.

Microsoft Teams platform is already free for educational settings, offering video meetings for up to 250 participants and live events for up to 10,000, recording and screen sharing, along with chat and collaboration. 

Meanwhile, other platforms, such as BlueJeans, Zoom and LogMeIn, are also available, with the latter offering free access to some of its services to educational institutions for up to three months.

Schools also need to consider purchasing VPN access for staff so they can access school systems securely from any location, while mobile broadband modems – that turn mobile data signal into a wi-fi hotspot to allow teachers to get online – may also be useful to provide a connectivity backup.

Furthermore, specific education-related technologies, such as Class Dojo, Bug Club and Purple Mash, could also prove key to providing simple, web-based access for pupils to obtain learning resources.

The issue again, though, is how ready pupils and teachers are to use these tools confidently, especially if they are turning to them in a time of upheaval, as Baddeley notes,  

“Now is not the time to be attempting to learn a whole new complex online learning platform. If your students receive a pack of well-thought-out resources via email, that is much better than both you, them and their parents attempting to muddle through the unfamiliar,” he says.

Benefits and risks of free technology

It is clear that edtech companies see the potential closures that may impact schools in the UK as a chance to showcase what they can do for schools, with the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) saying it is working to get more free trial systems added to its website for teachers to use if they wish.

“Given the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the UK, we are working rapidly with BESA’s 400-plus educational suppliers to adapt our existing free educational trials portal www.LendED.co.uk,” BESA said, adding that it will “incorporate an easy-to-use database of curriculum and remote-access education resources that schools, colleges and parents can access online and in downloadable formats in the event of school closures.”

This may well prove useful, but Lopez says schools should not rush to use it just because it is free now, but instead be mindful of issues it could cause, too.

“As generous as these are, they may not be sustainable, as the company will have their own quarantines to deal with and staffing may not keep up with the free supply of a platform not usually geared up to being free,” she says. “If you do want to take up one of the offers, check if you need to sync to your management information system etc as the set up alone could prove difficult.”

Of all the technologies teachers may engage with during a period of remote working, video conferencing systems need specific consideration as they come with many potential issues.

A good starting point is to ensure any use of these systems adheres to some key good-practice usage points as follows:

  • A clear background free from distractions or unwanted imagery.
  • The camera angle is straight ahead and stable.
  • A strong wi-fi connection to ensure quality video and audio.
  • They will be not be interrupted – especially loudly or embarrassingly.
  • They are aware they are visible at all times – easily forgotten on video calls.
  • Resources are ready to be shared when required – rather than having to hunt for them on the desktop to share.

However, perhaps more fundamentally, while video conferencing lessons may seem logical, some caution that it should not just be used immediately without thought. Baddeley, for example, has concerns.

“Just because it is possible to teach your class via a video call does not mean you should,” he says. “Entirely innocently, and with the best intentions at heart, it can still be a safeguarding minefield. The connection of teachers and students homes via video call is not something I would entertain nor is it something I would advise. Keep interactions textual and public.”

Safeguarding lead Ceri Stokes also advises teachers to be mindful of the potential risks around video calls and says one-to-one calling should not take place.

Connections between staff

It is worth considering how staff will communicate during any shutdown. Grundy says her schools are already preparing to turn to Microsoft Teams for weekly staff briefings and updates, as well as continue with weekly CPD sessions in this format.

“The secondary schools in the Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust also have their own contingency plan involving Office 365 alongside Teams to conduct daily live lessons and follow-up work, and we have already tested this to see if it works.”

Meanwhile, Devine from Italy says her school has been holding virtual meetings and even online “coffee breaks” to help staff retain a sense of community when working remotely.

“We set up Google Drive and Docs to collaboratively work and we have just set up a virtual coffee break and an afternoon group exercise session,” she explains. 

“We've also had to deal with trying to communicate correctly and in a timely fashion with staff by translating and interpreting the decrees from the Italian government. I think that this has been particularly stressful for international teachers.”

We will continue to update this page with answers to any questions you have, please contact Dan.Worth@tes.com if you would like something covered. 

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