Schools will be told to operate on a rota if local lockdowns make it impossible to operate as normal, the Education Secretary has announced.
Gavin Williamson said pupils will switch between classroom and home learning to “break chains of transmission of the virus” under of a four-tier system introduced just days before pupils in England return full time.
But late on Friday night Mr Williamson published new guidance that will instruct schools to use rotas – such as two weeks at school, two weeks at home – as a halfway house between teaching all pupils and teaching only the children of key workers.
It came as Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, admitted grandparents would be unable to hug their grandchildren this Christmas unless a vaccine was in place by then.
Mr Hancock also said another national lockdown was possible under a worst-case scenario.
Tier system for schools
The Department for Education’s guidance, published without fanfare as the country begins a bank holiday weekend, puts schools into four tiers where local lockdown restrictions are in place.
Tier 1 schools will be fully open to all pupils, but with the mandatory use of face coverings in corridors and communal areas for pupils in Year 7 and above.
Then, “if all other measures have been exhausted”, schools would move to Tier 2, where secondary schools would teach children on a rota basis and primary schools would remain open to all pupils.
The guidelines state that schools should “utilise time over the weekend effectively in order to prepare for a different rota group at the start of the week”.
Tiers 3 and 4 cover schools returning to a system of teaching only the children of key workers, while remaining pupils are taught remotely.
Mr Williamson said: “We hope that we won’t have to implement the guidance set out today because the local lockdown measures we have introduced so far are working. Changes to school attendance will only ever be an absolute last resort.”
“However, it is important that both government and schools prepare for a worst-case scenario, so this framework represents the sensible contingency planning any responsible government would put in place.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said: “We’ve been calling for more contingency planning from the government in the event of local lockdowns, so we are pleased that it has finally published some guidance to this effect.
“But to wait until the Friday night before most schools return isn’t the government’s finest moment. Obviously, schools haven’t had any chance whatsoever to incorporate this into their planning and will now have to revisit the plans they have put in place.”
“In any event, it is a step in the right direction. Obviously, everybody will be hoping that these back-up plans aren’t needed and that schools are able to remain fully open.”
Schools are also being sent packs of 10 home testing coronavirus kits for use “in exceptional circumstances” where a child or teacher with symptoms might have “barriers to accessing a test elsewhere”.
Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said England could face nationwide restrictions and extensive local lockdowns if a second wave comes this winter.
He said that under a “reasonable worst-case scenario” the NHS could be faced with a surge in coronavirus and a bad seasonal flu outbreak this winter.
In an interview with The Times he said a second wave was “avoidable but it’s not easy”.
He also said social distancing measures would remain for the “foreseeable” future meaning that, unless a vaccine is approved grandparents would not be able to hug their grandchildren this Christmas.
He said: “I yearn to be able to remove the restrictions on social contact but those restrictions are absolutely necessary at the moment. We’ll be keeping them in place for the foreseeable.”
He said that under the “central scenario” the vaccine was likely to be available “some time next year”, although he hoped it would be sooner.