Normally most children spend their final school days before Christmas making cards, rehearsing for the nativity play and enjoying other festive treats. But this year, with new guidance from the government confirmed on whether schools will be closing early for the holiday, things are looking a little different.
The worry that schools will close early for Christmas came when the Christmas lockdown rules were announced, as it became clear to many schools and families that staying open right up to the end of term could mean that anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 would have to self-isolate with their household over the festive season.
In turn, this would prevent families from seeing their elderly and more vulnerable relatives, along with preventing grandparents from seeing their grandchildren over the holiday after some time apart during the second national lockdown in England.
It’s no secret that schools have been hit hard with coronavirus since September, with half of England’s schools sending home children home because of a positive test in their class or ‘bubble’, despite stringent safety measures under the new tier system in place.
As a result, local councils in Wales started considering the idea of closing schools early for Christmas, with options varying between shutting down the schools on December 11 or just ending the term a couple of days early.
The Welsh Government, headteachers and the Welsh Local Government Association considered the proposition and whether to move all teaching online at the end of term carefully.
But that’s just in Wales, and if schools will close early for Christmas in other parts of the UK is a different matter. Here’s what we know so far…
Will schools close early for Christmas in England?
After new government guidance was released, it looks as though schools will be allowed to close one day early for Christmas.
As reported by the BBC, schools minister Nick Gibb told MPs that schools would be allowed to arrange an inset day for pupils on Friday December 18 to allow “six clear days” before Christmas and give teachers a “proper break” from having to identify and isolate potential coronavirus cases.
He added that an inset day next week would also ensure teachers didn’t have to deal with “track and trace issues” through the holiday.
In a virtual education select committee, Nick Gibb confirmed the news, “We are about to announce that inset days can be used on Friday December 18 , even if an inset day had not been originally scheduled for that day.”
While this means that pupils will stay home while teachers are still engaged in developmental work, Mr Gibb said, “We want to make sure that they [staff] can have a proper break over Christmas. We know they’ve been under huge stress.
“I don’t think some of these senior leadership teams of schools have had a break at all since the pandemic began.”
This is a big change from the previous ruling issued by the government after schools in Manchester tried to close their doors early for the holiday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the time that “on the whole” he would rather see young people in school before Christmas than at home and reliant on homeschooling.
Mr Johnson stated, “We want to keep pupils and young people in school as much as we possibly can. Where it’s possible to learn remotely, that can be a good thing and we’ve increased the supply of laptops. I think there’s around 200,000 laptops that we’ve supplied to schools.
“But on the whole, we want to see pupils and kids in school to get the benefit of learning. This is vital for social justice. We also want to see exams going ahead because it is very very important that young people should get the credentials and qualifications they need.”
The prime minister emphasised that “schools really are a priority”, so while the new three tier system in England might see certain businesses have to close, schools will be kept open.
For example, some schools in the region of Greater Manchester had considered closing early for Christmas because of coronavirus, but Focus Trust (who were leading the decision to close the schools early) have been forced to scrap these plans by the government.
The Department for Education asked the Focus Trust to review their decision and stressed the reason for schools staying open in the first place, saying that it “remains a national priority” to keep schools open until the end of term to “avoid further disruption to education.”
Will schools in Wales close early for Christmas?
The UCAC union in Wales is one of the organisations pushing for schools to close early. In a letter to the Welsh education minister, Kirsty Williams, the union said that there were “serious concerns” among its members “that pupils and students will continue to attend an education setting a week before Christmas Day.”
“If a pupil or student tested positive with Covid-19 during the last week of term, it would mean that the whole bubble would have to self-isolate, preventing them from joining their extended family for Christmas,” General Secretary Dilwyn Roberts-Young wrote, “The same could be true for the education workforce.
“In addition, Test, Trace and Protect could continue to contact school and colleges leaders on Christmas Day, which is totally unacceptable.”
Despite First Minister Mark Drakeford wanting schools to stay open until the last day of term, a position he confirmed after saying that it was important schools stayed open “with as little disruption as possible, the final decision in Wales about whether to close schools early for Christmas and return to online learning will actually rest with the local councils.
It’s already been revealed that some local councils, such as Blaenau Gwent, have gone against the first minister’s advice and announced that schools would move to online-only teaching a week earlier to “reduce the potential for pupils needing to self-isolate over the Christmas period”.
Will schools close early in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland have provided crystal clear guidance on whether schools will close early for Christmas and the answer is: absolutely not.
Education Minister Peter Weird cleared up any confusion around the issue as he said, “It is disappointing that despite my clear statement on 17 November that schools will not close early, there continues to be widespread rumours about this matter.
“I will once again stress that there are no plans to extend the Christmas holidays for schools. I believe this would only cause further disruption to children’s education and lead to an increase in levels of stress and anxiety.”
He went on to say that schools are a safe place for children to be during the pandemic. “I strongly believe that face to face teaching is the best form of education and our schools are the best place to provide this in a controlled and safe environment.”
“Indeed, large numbers of young people socialising out of school has the potential to create a major public health concern. My main priority is to guard children’s education, mental health and well-being.”
However, some schools across Northern Ireland are apparently considering closing schools as early as Friday December 11 and moving all teaching online. The suggestion comes after sourced within the education system, according to Belfast Live, suggest that a substantial number of parents want their children to be at home until the holidays and don’t want to risk having to self-isolate over Christmas.
The devolved nations of the UK all agreed to loosen restrictions over the Christmas period in the same way, with all countries agreeing to allow people to mix with up to three other households indoors between December 23 and 27 this year.
Will schools in Scotland close early for Christmas?
In Scotland, it’s now been revealed that schools will not close early and there will be no extension to the Christmas holidays, as a memo was leaked by the Daily Record previously suggested.
The initial plan in Scotland was that instead of closing schools early for Christmas, the government would extend the holiday and children would return to education later than planned.
The memo read, “The Scottish Government are exploring a national extension to Christmas holidays covering 18th December 2020 to 11th January 2021, either on the basis of schools remaining closed or the temporary introduction of remote learning.
“The Scottish Government officials have indicated that the objectives of an extension would be to ensure that school staff are not involved in contact tracing into the Christmas period.
“An extension would act as a break following the wider relaxation of restrictions over the Christmas period.”
This means that schools would break up as normal in Scotland on December 18. However, pupils would then return at the much later date of January 11. The idea was part of the government’s Education Recovery Group meeting last week but Health and Sport Secretary Jeane Freeman urged families not to “jump to conclusions” before a decision was made.
When do schools break up for Christmas 2020?
Schools break up for Christmas on different days across December, depending on whether they’re a private school, academy or state school, but most will break up on December 18. Some, however, are choosing to close early for the Christmas holidays this year in light of coronavirus restrictions.
It differs elsewhere in the UK as Scotland’s schools break up between December 21 and 23 with all schools in Aberdeenshire being the first to close for the holidays.
In Wales, schools will close either on December 17 or on December 22 depending on the council. Those in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport will break up for Christmas earlier while schoolchildren in Anglesey, Conwy and Wrexham will have to wait the five days more.
Northern Ireland’s schools close on December 22 and re-open again on January 4 in a more unified approach to the winter holidays.