Why are some schools closing over coronavirus?

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Cransley School

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Cransley School in Cheshire has been closed over coronavirus symptom fears

Some UK schools have closed over fears pupils and staff members may have been exposed to coronavirus after travelling abroad during the half-term break.

Others have sent pupils and staff home, as the illness continues to spread across Europe.

However, Public Health England (PHE) says it is not advising schools to shut to stem the spread of the virus.

Why are some schools closing their doors?

One academy chain chief executive told BBC News the decision to close one of his schools – Trinity Catholic College, in Middlesbrough – was primarily about the school’s duty of care towards pupils and staff.

Hugh Hegarty, head of the Nicholas Postgate Catholic Academy Trust, which oversees the closed school, said he had made the decision after 36 pupils and eight staff members returned from a skiing trip to Italy over half-term.

“It’s important people acknowledge that schools and other organisations have a duty of care to staff and have a duty of care to their children – and that is my paramount concern,” said Mr Hegarty.

“The challenge for us was… the children had returned to school on Monday, so there had been the potential that the total school population had been exposed – even though it was minimal – to the potential risk and potential threat.

“The decision was made to advise those parents who had children on the ski trip to self-isolate and the other students to remain at home until we commence a deep clean.”

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Media captionCoronavirus in the UK: Five things you need to know about Covid-19

In Kidderminster, Worcestershire, the ContinU Plus Academy closed for the day on Wednesday after a staff member had been in “close contact” with a family member self-isolating following a trip to northern Italy.

William Martin Church of England Junior, Infant and Nursery School in Harlow, Essex, also closed on Wednesday after a staff member had returned from Italy.

Head teacher Gina Bailey said: “The school is closed for one day and it is purely as a precaution. The staff member is not displaying any symptoms of the virus.”

But other schools have decided not to close following ski trips to northern Italy.

At St Aldhelm’s Academy, in Dorset, head teacher Jon Webb wrote to parents: “As it currently stands, we are not aware of anyone returning from the ski trip who are displaying symptoms that would cause us to have any concerns.”

What is the official advice to schools?

PHE’s medical director Prof Paul Cosford acknowledged schools had to take “difficult decisions given the complexity of the issues that they’re facing”.

“Of course, schools have difficult decisions to take – a whole range of issues to take into account and we are able to talk to them about their specific circumstances and help them make the right decisions for them,” he said.

“But what I would say is that our general advice is not to close schools.”

Speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there was “no blanket closure” for schools and the “goal was to keep schools open”.

“If anyone has been in contact with a suspected case in a childcare or an educational setting, no special measures are required while test results are awaited,” Mr Hancock told MPs.

“There is no need to close the school or send other students or staff home.

“Once the results arrive, those who test negative will be advised individually about returning to education.

“In most cases, closure of the childcare or education setting will be unnecessary but this will be a local decision based on various factors including professional advice.”

Head teachers in England should contact their regional schools commissioners should they need advice, he added.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, from University of Exeter Medical School, said: “If you have returned from the area of northern Italy that is currently in lockdown since 19 February, you need to self-isolate, as per the advice from Public health England and the UK government.

“However, there’s no need for a school to close. There are consequences to closing schools.

“It’s disproportionate and it gives the wrong impression. It makes people extremely concerned, when there’s no need to be.”

Official government guidance for educational settings says if a pupil or member of staff is confirmed as having coronavirus, anyone who has been “in close face-to-face or touching contact, including those undertaking small group work (within 2m [6ft] of the case for more than 15 minutes)” should self-isolate at home, or within their boarding school dormitory room, for 14 days”.

Does parental pressure affect head teachers’ decisions?

Some parents have expressed concern via social media about their child coming into contact with the coronavirus, particularly if fellow pupils have been away in northern Italy.

But while some parents want to see schools closed, others do not want their child’s education to be disrupted.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools listen carefully to the views of parents and they will obviously have regard to this feedback in making decisions over how to respond to any situation regarding coronavirus.

“However, it is often the case that different parents will have different views over an unfolding event, so school leaders have to take this range of opinion on board, together with the views of other stakeholders, and make a judgement on what response serves the best interests of all pupils and staff.”

Could there be an impact on the exam season?

With the exam season coming up next term, some teachers, parents and young people may be worried about disruption to important exams.

But the exams watchdog Ofqual said it was monitoring the situation closely and students should not be concerned.

“We routinely consider whether there are particular risks to the smooth running of exams and we are working closely with the exam boards and with the Department for Education,” a spokesman said.

“We will update our existing guidance to reflect any specific arrangements schools and colleges should put in place if required.

“In the meantime, students should continue to prepare for the summer exams as usual and schools and colleges should ensure their contingency plans are up to date.”

Mr Barton added: “We would urge students who are studying for their exams not to worry about what may or may not happen with regards to coronavirus and to concentrate on preparing for these important qualifications.”

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