By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter
Children would be set work if their schools closed
Emergency plans for virtual schools and "homework by post" have been drafted in case a decision is taken to close all schools over swine flu.
Officials in England have considered extending the school summer holidays to try to limit the spread of the virus before a vaccine is widely available.
Head teachers want schools to stay open but say they will do all they can to continue lessons if they do close.
Officials think it "very unlikely" the holidays will be extended.
But England's Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said the government will monitor the situation closely over the holidays and review the evidence in late August.
Scientists at Imperial College London have asked the government to consider closing schools this autumn to curb the spread of swine flu cases, while outlining the costs in terms of disruption and impact on business and essential services.
England's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said yesterday that "it would take a lot for us to move in that direction; it would be extremely disruptive to society".
But officials do have to plan for eventualities and both head teachers and Becta, the body charged with promoting the best use of technology in schools, have been involved in talks with government officials on the issue.
Becta confirms contingency plans are in place. Its officials have been liaising with the government and are working on revising government guidance to schools about how they can help children's education continue using technology.
Guidance released by the government in December last year details plans schools and local authorities should make in case schools are closed for extended periods.
It includes provision for long-distance learning using email, the internet and the post.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told BBC News: "They (the government) do speak to us about the long term and ask our views on this.
"The view of the government until the last few days has been to work on business as normal. They are telling schools to stay open even if they have cases.
"We are not anxious to see schools being closed. Obviously, keeping schools closed would have a deleterious effect on children's education.
"They would not be able to work as if they were at school."
If a decision were taken to close schools, however, Mr Ward said schools would do all they could to continue children's education.
"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," he said.
Becta officials have been liaising with the government and are revising government guidance to schools about how they can help children's education continue using technology.
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."
Becta's advice would include that schools make sure they have email addresses for parents and that teachers have access to the schools' websites from outside school, so they can set work.
"We saw in the snow that many schools recognised that their school website was a good communication channel, for letting people know when it would re-open but also for setting work sheets too," said Mr McClean.
Many schools now have what are known as "learning platforms" - virtual classrooms where children can log in from home and do work set and marked by teachers.
These could be expanded to set work generally and to enable teachers and pupils to communicate live.
GUIDANCE ON CLOSURES
Aim is to provide reasonable degree of teaching and learning
Overall planning responsibility lies with local authority
Schools to review students' home access to IT
Need to consider non-IT systems to get work to and from pupils
Some schools work in partnership with others to share learning platforms and it is a government aim for all schools to have one.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales, says a decision to close schools nationally could have a "potentially massive knock-on effect".
Councillor Margaret Eaton, chairman of the LGA, 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."
The government advice says if schools are closed for an extended period in a flu pandemic "students should be provided with a reasonable degree of teaching and learning".
The overall planning responsibility "lies with the local authority, working with schools on planning and delivery".
It calls 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.
It adds: "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".