Coronavirus in Wales: 'Schools may not open until September'

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Media caption,
Parents at Glasllwch Primary School in Newport have voiced their concerns

It is possible schools in Wales will not reopen until September, the education minister has said.

On Wednesday, Kirsty Williams announced all schools in the country will close by Friday and exams cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Public Health Wales said there there are now 170 confirmed cases in Wales.

The Welsh Government will also get extra powers to deal with the epidemic through the Coronavirus Bill, which will soon gain Royal Assent.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said it will help free up public services so they can do more on the frontline.

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Image caption,
The first minister said powers would enable the government to make emergency decisions over areas, including schools

He said the new powers "would not normally be seen in peacetime", adding: "These are powers to be used if we reach a point where such draconian interventions in the lives of individuals are necessary."

They include the ability to redeploy teachers, opening crematoriums and temporary changes to the Mental Health Act.

The announcement from Ms Williams came as England and Scotland took similar steps with all schools and nurseries closing from Friday and they may not reopen before summer. Nurseries in Wales will remain open.

She said authorities were dealing with "unprecedented times".

“I want schools back to normal as quickly as possible, however, I’m not in a position to tell parents when that will be," Ms Williams told BBC Radio Wales' Breakfast programme.

"We're at the mercy of the progression of this epidemic... as soon as we’re advised by scientists and clinicians it is safe to do so we will open schools."

The Brecon and Radnorshire AM said it would be a "considerable time" before schools were back to normal.

“We’re looking at what we can do to support workers who are needed on the front line... we’re looking at how we can support our most vulnerable learners," she added.

"After the Easter break I know many schools will be continuing to do what they can on a variety of platforms to carry on some form of learning… it won’t be business as usual."

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On Wednesday Kirsty Williams announced school closures

This summer's exams have been cancelled with GCSE (year 11) and A-level (year 13) students likely to be graded on the work already completed as well as, potentially, teacher assessments, she said.

Ms Williams told the assembly's education committee on Thursday: "Year 11 and year 13 will be given a grade because those years and grades are gateway qualifications."

What about university entries?

The minister said discussions with universities "are ongoing" to ensure they would be happy with the system that would be used.

Senior government official Huw Morris told the committee: "We've received every indication that the approach that's been adopted here is being welcomed by the institutions.

"They will be communicating with schools as quickly as possible about what schools will need to do to ensure that the systems that they will now put in place can work."

What do parents think?

Parents have broadly agreed with the decision but said they faced an "anxious and challenging" time.

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"It all feels very surreal," said Kate Richardson

The mood amongst pupils and parents was calm at The Dell Primary School in Chepstow.

"It's an anxious time but I think it's important to keep as much normality as possible for the children," said parent Kate Richardson.

"It's important to explain to them as best as possible what is going on and how important it is to help people in our community."

Image caption,
Eight-year-old Ed said he was "happy" at the extended Easter holiday

While children, such as eight-year-old Ed may be happy at the long break from school, his mother Lucy is concerned for her older children, who were due to sit their GCSE exams this year.

"It's unsettling for them because they thought they were going to be staying at school," she said.

"Now they've been told that they are going to be staying at home and not seeing their friends."

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"It will be difficult through this period"

One parent, an IT manager who has children at Ysgol Melin Gruffydd in Cardiff, said both him and his wife - a hospital ward sister - worked full time.

"Work is very accommodating but that's challenging with four small children," he said.

"There are online courses [the children] can do but they'll lose that social interaction."

Another parent added: "It's the right decision but it will have a huge impact. The difficult thing is we don't know how long it will last."

The announcement in Wales was made on Wednesday, just before the Scottish Government said that schools are expected to shut by the end of the week.

England then followed with a similar closure until further notice.

Ms Williams said she had discussed the issue with her ministerial counterparts in the other UK countries and "all three of us are grappling with the same issue".

Regulatory body Qualifications Wales welcomed the decision to cancel exams and said it gave "clarity" to pupils, parents and teachers during an "unprecedented" situation.

Childcare centres are expected to remain open until advice is given to close.

A Welsh Government spokesman said some schools would be "repurposed" and remain open for vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers dealing with the response to the outbreak.

"We will continue to ensure the Welsh NHS has the resources it needs to deal with the coronavirus outbreak," he added.

Headteachers body NAHT Cymru welcomed the announcement, while Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, said it was "the right decision at the right time".

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