Thousands of Norfolk schoolchildren off today ahead of mass closure of classrooms
PUBLISHED: 07:34 19 March 2020 | UPDATED: 07:34 19 March 2020
Archant Norfolk 2016
Dozens of schools across Norfolk are closed or partially closed today ahead of the government’s decision to close all schools from Friday afternoon.
As of 7am, 45 schools in the county have told parents and pupils that some or all students will be unable to attend.
The majority of the schools remain open for some, and are currently only asking specific classes or year groups not to come in.
But some are closed entirely, with many citing staff shortages due to self-isolation as the reason behind the disruption.
It comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced on Wednesday that all schools will close from Friday afternoon for an indefinite period as the government looks to combat the spread of coronavirus.
He said that the rate of the disease’s spreading had “accelerated” in the UK, adding: “It’s clear that schools are finding it more difficult to continue as normal, as illness and self-isolation impacts on staff levels and attendance.
“I want to provide pupils, parents and staff with the certainty that they need.”
Many of the 45 schools in Norfolk that are not operating as normal this morning are following government advice and continuing to allow the children of NHS and emergency workers to attend.
Also announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his daily press conference on Wednesday were plans to suspend new evictions from social or private rented accomodations during the coronavirus “national emergency”, while he refused to rule out a potential full lockdown of the capital.
He said: “I have to tell you we will rule nothing out and we will certainly wish to consider bringing forward further and faster measures where that is necessary to suppress the peak of the epidemic to protect our NHS, to minimise casualties, and to minimise suffering.”
Meanwhile. the Government is to launch a voucher scheme to ensure children eligible for free school meals will continue to have access to hot food while schools shut down for the foreseeable future.
Mr Williamson said vouchers redeemable in shops and supermarkets would be given to schools to provide “flexibility” for eligible children, adding the Government would reimburse costs.
He said: “We will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children who are eligible for free school meals.
“Some schools are already doing this and we will make sure those costs are reimbursed.
“As soon as possible, we will put in place a national voucher system for every child who is eligible for free school meals.”
He added: “I would like to progress to a stage where, in a large number of schools around the country, there is also the ability to have meals there provided, but that will be dependant in terms of staffing in each of those schools.”
It came as Labour MP Jess Phillips warned Mr Williamson of an “explosion” of the number of children who would qualify for school meals.
She said: “We are about to see an explosion in the number of people who are eligible for free school meals because of the downturn in the economy.
“So can he (Mr Williamson) guarantee today that it won’t just be those who are eligible as of last week but who would be eligible in the future, which has always been a problematic thing to get people on the right benefits to claim school meals?”
Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer said: “The loss of free school meals risks millions of children going hungry, and for some this means missing their only hot meal of the day.
“Schools are pillars of our communities and may need to be reimagined during this period, so that those with additional needs get the support they need.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “Now, more than anything else, the Government needs to concentrate on ensuring that children in food poverty are fed properly - these children are not just those on free school meals.”
Others praised the voucher system including Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
He said: “We must do all we can to alleviate the impact of today’s decision on those children. It is welcome the Government has pledged to provide vouchers to make up free school meals.”
Cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, added: “Councils and schools will continue to do all they can to try and ensure vulnerable pupils, including those on free school meals and those with special educational needs and disabilities, can continue to be provided for.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the country faces a “truly unprecedented and grave situation”.
He said: “Today’s decision is a vote of confidence in how schools have responded so far. Schools can be confident they are doing a good job.
“Now, they should also be entitled to expect the necessary support from other organisations with civic responsibilities.
“The situation is moving very quickly, and we have more questions than answers at the moment.
“Whilst NAHT and its school leader members stand ready to assist with this response, there are many complicated issues to address immediately as a result of the government’s announcement today.
“This will be our focus in the next few days, to assist our members with this enormous task and to work alongside the DfE to make this work on the ground.
“It will not be easy, but the scale of the crisis means that many solutions will have to be tried even though they are less than perfect.”
For a full list of school closures, visit the Norfolk County Council website.
For regular updates on the situation in the county, join our Norfolk Coronavirus Updates group on Facebook.