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The Guardian view on closing schools: yet another least-bad option | Editorial | Opinion

The decision to keep most students at home for the foreseeable future will create formidable challenges. A last remaining bulwark of normality has been breached

The emergency coronavirus bill, which is about to go before parliament, contained a clause allowing ministers to force schools and nurseries to stay open, with expanded class sizes if necessary. But once again the momentum of events seems to have outstripped the government’s attempts to direct or contain them.

The capacity of schools to cope with large numbers of infected staff and students reached breaking point this week. Hundreds of institutions across Britain closed their gates and a sense of panic was growing. The government’s response, unveiled in Boris Johnson’s latest press conference, is to turn the country’s schools into surrogate childcare facilities. From next week, they will stay open only for children of key workers including those in the NHS, the police force and the food industry. Importantly, they will also continue to educate and feed vulnerable children – those who have a dedicated social worker or an education, health and care plan. All other students will stay at home for the foreseeable future.

It was the prospect of losing key workers to childcare duties which persuaded the government that the schools should stay open as long as possible. To that extent, a circle has been squared. But there will be bemusement in many quarters that this did not come sooner. The government’s decision was presented by Mr Johnson as a practical step to apply “downward pressure” on the upward curve of the epidemic’s trajectory. It was the right move at the right time, he said, while reiterating the scientific advice that schools were not a significant factor in transmission of the epidemic. But as recently as the beginning of this week, the closure of schools did not appear imminent. Once again, the lines between politics, pragmatism and science are blurred and confusing.

In a crisis where there are only least-bad options, the challenges created by sending most students home are enormous. That parents and pupils now know that school exams will not take place this summer is welcome. The prime minister promised that students will “get the qualifications they need”. But the criteria for awarding them will need to be carefully thought through; they should not penalise those who could have used the time between now and June to make up lost time.

As virtual learning takes its place alongside virtual working in the transformed family home, there will need to be help and advice for millions of overwhelmed parents. The prime minister’s plea that children should, as far as is possible, be kept away from elderly relatives will be painful and difficult for some families to achieve.

Midway through a week that no one will forget, one of the last remaining bulwarks of normality has been breached. From protecting business and employment to organising education and childcare, extraordinary responsibilities are now devolving to the government. Some cherished liberal norms and rights are also about to be put on hold: the coronavirus bill is expected to receive royal assent next week. It empowers police to detain individuals suspected of having contracted the disease. Mr Johnson reiterated in his latest press conference that he would not hesitate to impose further restrictions on individual conduct, when judged necessary.

Stealthily, steadily, the disease is recalibrating the relationship between individuals, society and the state. There is only one parallel to draw upon. In the Britain of 1939, the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act gave ministers a range of controls over citizens extending to what they ate, how and where they worked, and even what they wore. As a population we are now entering similar terrain. It is a strange landscape, fraught with risk. The government must tread with extreme care. The public will need to demonstrate the kind of forbearance that previous generations showed in wartime. This Wednesday it was the turn of the schools. But there will be more to come.

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