Emergency swine flu plans

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Emergency plans to utilise technology to continue childrens’ teaching have been drafted in case a decision is taken to close all schools over swine flu.

The plans include extending the school summer holidays to try to limit the spread of the virus before a vaccine is widely available.

Scientists at Imperial College London have asked the government to consider closing schools to curb the spread of swine flu cases.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, London, said that widespread illness could lead to schools closing for several weeks and that the pandemic could mean that 25-35 per cent of the population would fall ill within three or four months.

The virus is two to three times more deadly than seasonal flu, which kills an estimated 12,000 people each year.

However, the illness could be so prevalent at the peak of a pandemic that even large-scale school closures could not contain its spread.

Becta has confirmed that contingency plans are in place, and that it is working with the government on guidance to schools about how they can help children's education continue using technology.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told BBC News: "We are not anxious to see schools being closed. Obviously, keeping schools closed would have a deleterious effect on children's education."

He went on to say: "It's not a decision for us to take; it's for the government and if they decide that closing schools would save a lot of lives, then schools would do their best to send work home, to use technology, put work on the internet or send it by email."

Neil McClean, Becta's executive director of institutional development, said: "We are looking to update the existing guidance on how schools can maintain a continuity of services, should the school have to close or children be off with long-term illness.

"We will not be setting an alternative to schools. The key relationship is between schools, parents and children and the issue is how to use technology to maintain the relationships. We will not be issuing work sheets."

Councillor Margaret Eaton, chairman of The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales, said: "Any decision to order the nationwide closure of schools would have to be taken extremely carefully. It has a potentially massive knock-on effect because of the numbers who could be expected to stay at home to care for their children rather than going to work.

"This would mean some parents losing out financially, and could worsen problems for businesses and the providers of vital services, already likely to be dealing with a high absence rate because of sickness.

"There is also the issue of disruption to the education of tens of thousands of children.

"Individual schools and their local councils are in the best position to decide on localised closures, and when schools should reopen."

Meanwhile, the government is calling on local authorities to discuss plans with schools now and for schools to review the proportion of students with IT facilities at home, and the extent to which students with such facilities could access school IT systems from home.

Local authorities should also consider posting work or making it available at central points such as libraries or town halls, for children without access to online systems.

A government spokesman said: "A severe pandemic would cause major disruption to all aspects of life, including what is reasonable to expect of schools and local authorities - but that is not a reason to neglect planning".

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