Covid: 'Reveal milestones to reopen Wales schools' call

By Bethan Lewis
BBC Wales education and family correspondent

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More information is needed about when ministers will deem it safe to reopen schools, the children's commissioner says

Ministers are being urged to reveal more information about the coronavirus milestones they need to see for children to return to classrooms.

The children's commissioner for Wales said "calm, reassuring" messages would be helpful to address pupils' anxiety.

Measures including school and college closures will be reviewed on Friday.

But First Minister Mark Drakeford has already said even after the February half-term, all pupils are unlikely to return full time.

Commissioner Sally Holland said she did not expect the Welsh Government to provide a timetable, but more information was needed about the evidence being considered.

"I think what would be most helpful now would be to hear from government some transparent, calm and reassuring information about how they will make those difficult decisions going forward," she said.

"So what evidence will they be looking for and what milestones will they have had to achieve in order to have partial or full return of children and young people to school?

"I think that there's a lot of anxiety out there and we're hearing that from children and young people but also of course staff need to know where they are, as do parents," she added.

Education Minister Kirsty Williams has said she would look at "every possible option" in order to resume some face-to-face teaching, including prioritising some year groups.

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Jane Jenkins said she would prefer to see a rota system rather than focussing on just some year groups

Jane Jenkins, headteacher of Moorland Primary School in Cardiff, believes with virus levels high it still feels "very risky" to have classrooms full with 30 children and two adults.

When there is a move to start getting children back to face-to-face-teaching, she would prefer a rota system rather than focusing only on some year groups.

"I think that causes a lot of problems for families where they've got a child in a year group that comes in every day, other children that never attend - I think that's a tricky model, certainly from a primary perspective," she said.

"I think, for me, the best way forward would be to look at a part-time return to school for all children so we could be looking at maybe half size classes - children would attend half the week.

"That might be a more realistic model than having certain year groups in and others not."

There are ongoing discussions between the government, local authorities and unions.

Should there be social distancing in schools?

The National Education Union Cymru (NEU) said there needs to be distancing of at least one metre between pupils in all schools and colleges instead of "bubbles" which can sometimes be the size of whole year groups.

"We need to ensure that there are reviews of all risk assessments in light of the new and evidently more transmissible and possibly more dangerous variants," Mary van den Heuvel, the NEU's Wales policy officer, said.

"We need to see rotas in place, so we can have fewer children in the classroom and ensure that they're social distancing and we need to see masks worn by everybody in the classroom particularly in secondary schools".

The unions as well as opposition parties continue to call for school staff to be prioritised in the vaccination programme.

Suzy Davies MS, the Welsh Conservatives' education spokesperson, said vaccinating school and college staff after the four main priority groups is the key to "rescuing education".

She said if the review of restrictions concludes that schools and colleges are to remain closed to most pupils, then the education minister must set out a clear plan.

"That means the minister making decisions about specific year groups going back, rotas, using other community facilities to help manage social distancing," she said.

"Delays beyond half-term take us beyond too many tipping points; learning, children and young people's social skills, their mental health, the mental health of staff and parents trying to fight an ever more difficult battle to supervise learning at home."

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How could pupils in Wales catch up on lost learning?

Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister, Siân Gwenllian MS, said: "Good communication is essential but unfortunately clarity is lacking when it comes to the reopening of schools in Wales.

"This is causing confusion and undermining confidence.

"Welsh Government must issue its plan on how and when it intends to open schools safely to give parents the reassurance that, when schools are reopened, their children will be as safe as possible."

How could pupils start returning to face-to-face teaching?

Ms Williams said rotas "potentially have a part to play" - an approach previously suggested by unions.

Whether pupils took turns daily or weekly to go to school, it would mean fewer pupils on site at any one time, potentially allowing more distancing or smaller contact groups.

Priority for some year groups has also been discussed, such as older children studying for important qualifications and the very youngest children who struggle to learn remotely.

Or could schools in areas with lower Covid-19 case rates return first? This has been mentioned as a potential approach to get as many pupils as possible back in the classroom as quickly as possible.

Adjusting school term times has been mentioned by Ms Williams on more than one occasion, but plans to shift term times hit the buffers last year.

A proposal to move the summer holidays earlier so children could return to school last August was abandoned due to unions' concerns, and only three local authorities ended up adding an extra week to the summer term.

However Ms Williams has said "changes to the pattern of the school year is long overdue" and a long summer away from the classroom "does huge damage particularly to our most disadvantaged learners".

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