Coronavirus: 'Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The government is urging all key workers who can keep their children at home to do so in a bid to ease the pressure on schools during the coronavirus emergency. ​The same message is being given to the parents of children with Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHP).

From Monday (March 23), schools will only remain open for the children of key workers, vulnerable students and those with EHCPs.

The Cabinet Office published on Thursday (March 19) an extensive list outlining who qualifies for key worker status. Children with at least one parent or carer who are identified as a critical worker can also attend school “if required”. It has sparked concerns about schools’ ability to cope amid severe staffing shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the plea to parents to keep children home if possible is repeated time and again in government guidance.

In guidance for parents and carers, also published on Thursday, the Department for Education (DfE), states: “Many parents working in these critical sectors may be able to ensure their child is kept at home. Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be. This is an offer to parents and carers and there is no requirement for parents and carers to send their children to school if they do not need or wish to do so. For vulnerable children, your child’s social worker will work with you to assess the best option for your child.”

The list of key workers has been published alongside further guidance to schools and colleges from the Cabinet Office. Key workers include:

  • Health and social care.
  • Education and childcare.
  • Key public services (justice, other frontline services, management of the deceased, and public service journalism).
  • Local and national government.
  • Food and other necessary goods.
  • Public safety and national security.
  • Transport.
  • Utilities, communication and financial services.

However, the Cabinet Office guidance again emphasises that key workers should only send their children to school “if you cannot keep your child safe at home”.

The point is made again and again: “The government has asked parents to keep their children at home, wherever possible, and asked schools to remain open only for those children who absolutely need to attend. The fewer children making the journey to school, and the fewer children in educational settings, the lower the risk that the virus can spread and infect vulnerable individuals in wider society.

“Schools are, therefore, being asked to continue to provide care for a limited number of children – children who are vulnerable and children whose parents are critical to the Covid-19 response and cannot be safely cared for at home.”

It adds: “Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be.”

The DfE guidance also acknowledges the unique problems facing special schools and again urges parents to play their part in easing the pressure.

It states: “We recognise that children and young people with SEND and their parents and carers are facing numerous challenges as a result of coronavirus. We are encouraging local authorities to keep open both residential special schools and residential specialist colleges wherever possible. In addition, we want to keep the majority of day special schools and colleges open, including moving staff into these settings to avoid closure.

“Special schools, colleges and local authorities are advised to make case by case basis assessments of the health and safeguarding considerations of pupils and students on an EHCP. For some, they will be safer in an education provision. For others, they will be safer at home. We trust leaders and parents to make these decisions and will support them as required.”

School leaders have echoed these pleas. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We would appeal to parents on this list to follow the first principle of keeping their children at home if it all possible from Monday onwards, and to only send them to school if there is no safe alternative.

“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. It is important that the public understands that this is not business as usual.

“Schools will endeavor 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. Schools are working to an incredibly tight timescale to turn round this provision and we would ask everybody to show patience and understanding in this extremely challenging situation.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Taking up a place at school during this time of wider closure is the offer of last resort, for the minority of key workers, who have no alternative. School leaders have many questions that remain unanswered about how this will work in practice. We will continue to work with government to provide greater clarity to schools to enable this reduced offer to be up and running as soon as possible."

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the key worker list was "very long". She added: “This ... could result in some schools having the majority of pupils attending. This will not achieve the goal of slowing the spread of the virus. So it is vitally important that parents follow government advice to keep their children at home, wherever possible. 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.”

In the DfE’s guidance, it is also acknowledged that not all schools will be able to stay open. Some rationalisation of provision is expected in the coming days and weeks. It adds: “We are expecting the majority of settings to stay open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children so they can continue to attend their usual provider, but we acknowledge this will be impossible for some – such as small rural schools.

“Where a setting is unable to stay open, we will work with the local educational authority, regional school commissioners and neighbouring providers to find an alternative setting for their pupils.

“We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that children can attend the best setting for them, and will provide transport arrangements to support them.”

Elsewhere, the 1.3 million children in England who are eligible for free school meals will be offered vouchers, food or meals.

In separate guidance for schools published on Thursday (March 19), the DfE says headteachers should decide on the most appropriate approach. The vouchers will be for supermarkets or local shops and can be sent directly to families. There will be e-vouchers (where available and appropriate) or gift cards.

The DfE states: “Effective immediately, schools will be able to order vouchers directly from supermarkets or shops in their communities to be emailed or printed and posted to families, and they will have their costs covered by the Department for Education. A national approach to providing these supermarket and shop vouchers is being developed.”

The government says that the total value of vouchers offered to each eligible child per week will exceed the rate it pays to schools for free school meals, “recognising that families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs”.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “By giving headteachers flexibility on how they can get meals or shop vouchers to these children, they can make the most appropriate decisions for families in their communities, and provide immediate reassurance that this important support will continue.”

  • DfE: Closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers, March 2020a: https://bit.ly/2vACqUj
  • DfE: COVID-19: free school meals guidance, March 2020b: https://bit.ly/2U48ARF
  • Cabinet Office/DfE: Guidance for schools, colleges and local authorities on maintaining educational provision (including key workers list), March 2020: https://bit.ly/2UnaqMl


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