The government has announced big changes to its plan for the return of pupils to schools in January.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said today that ministers were activating their contingency framework for schools, in response to a new strain of Coronavirus and rising case numbers.

Here’s what we learned from the announcement and accompanying guidance published this evening.

 

1. Two-week closures for primaries in Covid hotspots

The biggest change is that primary schools in Covid hotspot areas will remain closed to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers for the next two weeks. Pupils not attending on-site will get remote education.

The list of Covid hotspots is at the bottom of this story. Strangely, some London boroughs are included on the list despite other neighbouring boroughs not featuring, prompting questions about how families should act if they have children at schools in different council areas.

The government also had to update the list just minutes after publishing because it mistakenly did not include the London borough of Redbridge.

Reportedly, areas were chosen based not just on case rates, but also the speed of the spread and hospital capacity. The list was drawn up by the education and health departments and Public Health England.

 

2. Extra week’s delay for secondaries, with remote learning for exam pupils

For secondaries, the announcement essentially means a one week delay to what was previously announced.

Only vulnerable and key worker children will get face-to-face provision from next week, with exam year groups back in from January 11 and everybody else back on January 18 at the earliest.

But – importantly – secondary schools only have to provide remote education in the first week back to pupils in exam year groups, the DfE said. This is to allow them to prioritise testing.

However, a later email sent to schools from the DfE seems to have confused the matter, advising schools “prioritise resources for remote education for exam year groups in line with what they would receive in class and to all other years as resources permit“.

 

3. Exams to go ahead as planned

Vocational exams due to be sat in the first weeks back will go ahead as planned. This presumably means those pupils will be allowed to attend school to sit their exams.

Williamson also told MPs that GCSE and A-level exams later in the year will still going ahead as planned.

 

4. Restrictions will be “kept under review”

Prime minister Boris Johnson told today’s Downing Street press briefing that primary schools in hotspot areas will be closed to most pupils “until at least January 18”. The closures will then be reviewed at that point based on case numbers.

According to the contingency framework guidance published today, restrictions “will be lifted as soon as the public health and scientific advice says it is appropriate to do so”.

“The guiding principle for any decision making will be that any restrictions to attendance on site are kept to a minimum,” the guidance adds.

Williamson was asked about this in the Commons earlier, confirming there would be a review after the two week delay to the start of term for some schools.

“Our obvious hope and desire is to see that those areas that are in the contingency frameworks would be moving out of that, but we’ll obviously be guided by the public health advice and the scientific advice that is available to us,” he said.

 

5. Special schools open, but attendance ‘not mandatory’ in Covid hotspots

Government guidance on the contingency framework states that special schools “should continue to allow pupils to attend full-time”. However a press release states “individual special schools” will have “some flexibility”. There are no further details about what this flexibility entails.

Where the contingency framework is implemented, special school pupils of primary school age “should continue to attend school while full-time attendance is mandatory in mainstream primary schools”.

However, where attendance is limited in primary schools, attendance will be “encouraged but will not be mandatory” for special school pupils of primary school age and parents “will not be penalised if their child does not attend”.

Where the contingency framework is implemented, pupils at special schools who are of secondary school age “should continue to attend their education setting full-time”.

However, while attendance is encouraged, “it will not be mandatory and parents will not be penalised if their child does not attend”.

Special post-16 institutions “should continue to allow students to attend as per their usual timetable”.

 

6. AP should remain open

Under the contingency framework, alternative provision – including pupil referral units, AP academies and AP free schools – should “continue to allow all children or pupils to attend full-time”.

 

7. Meals should be provided to eligible pupils

The guidance states that schools should “continue to provide free school meals or food parcels” for eligible pupils who are not in school because they are self-isolating, have had symptoms or a positive test results or are a close contact of a confirmed case.

Schools should “work with suppliers to prepare meals or food parcels to be collected by, or delivered to, these eligible children during their time at home”. Any parcels “should be distributed in line with guidance on social distancing and local restriction tiers and should meet the school food standards”.