Fears of autumn spike behind June 29 re-opening in Wales

Written by: Greg Lewis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools in Wales are preparing to bring back pupils from June 29 amid safety concerns from teaching unions. School leaders, meanwhile, are seeking clarification from the Welsh Assembly on ‘flexibilities and practicalities’ in the plans. Greg Lewis reports

Senior leadership teams in Wales are now grappling with the logistical challenges of safely returning all year groups to school at the end of June as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Wales education minister Kirsty Williams has decided schools and pupil referral units should open to one third of all pupils each day from June 29 to “catch-up” and “check-in” and prepare for the “new normal” ahead of September.

On Wednesday (June 10), the Welsh government published guidance for schools to plan for pupils to return from June 29.
Entitled Keep Education Safe, the document offers provides practical and learning guidance on preparing schools for a phased return up to the end of the summer term. The guidance is split into two sections, learning and operational matters.

It stated that PPE would not be necessary in normal circumstances but would be used for “intimate care” and if someone was suspected of having COVID-19, and sets out details on stricter hand-washing guidelines. It suggests schools look at using additional community buildings to create greater capacity and space from September.

Headteachers have said that while they are generally supportive, many feel it is too early to bring back every year group and warn the plan could cost lives.

Risk assessments are now being carried out with the support of health and safety officers from local authorities to decide how many children can return each day and how two-metre social distancing can operate throughout every school building in Wales.

Teachers and support staff are also completing personal risk assessments and local authorities are stocking up on PPE and planning cleaning regimes.

Staggered start times, children in groups of 10 or less working with staff in bubbles, and one-way systems are among the outline plans.

Many schools will be open to pupils for four days each week with one day being allowed for a deep clean. It is thought that individual pupils will go back into the classroom for around one day a week before the summer holidays depending on individual school circumstances and also continue to access learning online.

Wales' chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton has said his preferred option was a return to school in August. However it is understood that teaching unions rejected this proposal.

Ms Williams said there was no “risk-free” option and stated that if the R rate went above 1 or hospital admissions rose she would re-evaluate.

The minister revealed that she had made the decision having been advised that an autumn spike in the virus “is a very real possibility” and could result in “losing even more learning time”.

The NASUWT is calling for assurances that if there is any “threat to the physical wellbeing of learners and staff” schools will not re-open on June 29. Neil Butler, NASUWT national official for Wales, said: “Allowing all pupils the opportunity for contact time at their schools is the most dangerous option in terms of virus transmission.

“The Welsh government is well aware of the extreme difficulty of social distancing in schools, especially for younger children. The minister has also admitted that this is for a ‘check-in’ and ‘catch-up’ so there is clearly no educational purpose behind this decision. These are not good enough reasons for risking lives.”

The Welsh government said teachers will be at the forefront of the new antibody testing system, beginning with staff who have worked at the hub and school staff will have priority on the test and trace system.

To ensure as many children are able to return as possible, the summer term has been extended by one week to July 27, and instead the autumn half-term holiday will be two weeks.

Speaking at a webinar organised by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Ms Williams said that if teachers had booked holidays for this extra week and were able to take them up, then they would not be expected to work.

However, headteachers are waiting for more details on the practicalities of staffing schools during this period, as well as supporting staff with their own childcare challenges.

Rosie Lewis, school support staff lead at UNISON Wales, is calling for unions to continue to be involved in discussions. She said support staff were “understandably anxious” having continued to work through this stressful period and now they were being asked to work for an additional week.

Outlining the rationale to re-open schools widely, the minister told a plenary session of the Welsh Assembly that if they waited until September then most children would have not been in school for 23 weeks. She said she had “been kept awake at night” by the low attendance of vulnerable children at the hub schools and believed more would return to their own school and to familiar faces.

Her timing was also linked to the fact that by the end of June, the “test and trace” system would be up and running.

NAHT Cymru has said they are supportive of learners returning to school but ruled that getting all learners back was “problematic”. Laura Doel, the union’s director in Wales, said: “We will be seeking further discussions with Welsh government on the flexibilities, practicalities and guidance that will be needed to support schools in implementing wider re-opening plans.”

Pupils’ views guided minister’s decision

More than half of secondary school pupils in Wales are worried about falling behind in their academic work in lockdown, a new nationwide survey has found.

While many children have enjoyed aspects of lockdown – such as spending time with family and taking daily exercise – they miss their friends, are worried about their relatives contracting the virus, and falling behind in their learning.

Nearly 24,000 children and young people in Wales aged between three and 18 completed a national survey organised by the children’s commissioner for Wales, the Welsh government, the Welsh Youth Parliament, and Children in Wales.

While the majority of children and young people in Wales (84 per cent) who responded said they felt safe during the pandemic, one area of concern was missing out on their education while at home.

Fifty-four per cent of 12 to 18-year-olds said they were worried about falling behind with their school work. Only 11 per cent of this age group who took part in the survey said they did not feel worried about their education.

Just under half (48 per cent) said they did not feel motivated to do their work at home, and 27 per cent said they did not understand the work they were sent, including some with additional learning needs.

Sally Holland, the children’s commissioner for Wales, said that many children and young people who completed the survey wanted more face-to-face online contact with teachers to help them manage.

In younger age groups, 75 per cent of year 6 children wanted the chance to visit their secondary school before starting in September, with 76 per cent saying they wanted a chance to say goodbye to their primary school before moving.

The Welsh government said that the survey results helped inform its decision to prepare schools in Wales to welcome back pupils of all age groups.

Ms Holland said: “There’s been a huge effort from the education profession in re-purposing schools, making emergency childcare provision and keeping in contact with children. Teachers have also shown real courage in working in hubs through this crisis. But it’s clear that many children and young people do want more support with their learning at home.

“Some schools have been trying out the range of tools that Hwb (Wales’ online education resource) offers to keep their school community in contact through video-calls and online group learning activities. This changes the way children learn at home and means that children and young people get some social interaction and feedback from a teacher, both of which are vital parts of learning.”

  • Greg Lewis is a freelance journalist.

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