First Minister: “There is a strong case for having the very youngest children back in school”
Children in primary schools across Wales could begin returning to face to face learning school after the February half term, if rates of coronavirus continue to fall.
First minister Mark Drakeford will confirm later today that alert level four lockdown restrictions will remain in place in Wales for the next three weeks.
During the current lockdown period schools and colleges have remained open for children of critical workers and vulnerable learners, for others schooling has taken place at home.
Welsh Government said it will be working with schools and education partners “on a phased and flexible return to school after 22 February, if the public health situation continues to improve”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast this morning Mark Drakeford said: “We want to give our schools two weeks notice of any plans.”
“Next week there will be intensive discussions with our local education authorities and our trade unions to find a way of returning as many children as we can, as safely as we can after half term.”
“There is some grounds for optimism in Wales, the numbers of people contracting coronavirus are falling, we need to see that sustained over the next three weeks, if we do, there will be some headroom for a phased and flexible return of children to learning.
“There is a strong case for having the very youngest children back in school, they’re not able to learn online and remotely, and the risk of them contracting or passing on coronavirus is the least of all.”
He said: “We also want to see if it’s possible to have young people who are studying for qualifications, particularly those where there are practical aspects to those examinations – vocational qualifications – in our schools and colleges.”
“We’d like to see them back in the classroom in small numbers, maybe not as it would have been before, in safe conditions, working with our colleagues in the field to do that in a careful and safe way.”
Asked why the Welsh government “feels confident” it can children back into school earlier than England and Northern Ireland, the first minister said: “The context is different.”
“Today we have 175 people in Wales for every 100,000 contracting coronavirus, in England a couple of days ago the average was 350 (per 100,000) and our figure is falling every day, so you can see the context is very different.
“We want to take advantage of that, our children and young people have had a torrid time over the last 12 months, they are missing out on education every week.”
“It’s our shared ambition here with our local education authorities, the teaching unions and children’s commissioner.”
“We are all agreed to work together on getting as many of those young people back into face to face learning as soon as it is safe to do so, provided the next three weeks see further falls, we think we can do that, straight after half term, that’s what we’ll be working on together.”
The seven day infection rate in Flintshire is the second highest in Wales according Public Health Wales data, it stood at 369 per 100,000 population as of January 23, double that of the all Wales figure of 175 per 100,000.
Though using raw data up to 25 January, the figure in Flintshire is nearer to 300 per 100, 000.
Asked what would be the rough number (cases per 100,000) the first minister “would be comfortable with to say yes, it is now safe to go back to school.”
Mr Drakeford said: “It will be a combination of factors, it’ll be the rate I just quoted to you, it will be the positivity rate which is also coming down in Wales.”
“We will also be looking carefully at the number of people in our hospitals and in critical care, we will then take a judgement in the round.”
“The key thing is the trend, those numbers need to continue to fall, they’ve been falling now in Wales for six weeks, we need another three weeks.”
“We need to see the momentum in that direction, then we’ll take a judgment based not just on a single figure, but on a basket of indicators across the system.”
“If it’s safe to do so, we all want our children back in the classroom, that’s what they need, that’s what they deserve, and our cabinet is determined that that will be the top priority for us here in Wales.”
Asked if Wales will prioritise COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers, teaching assistants and staff in schools, once the top four priority groups on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been “addressed,” Mr Drakerford said:
“We will follow the advice of the JCVI, the JCVI has said they will look at this issue.”
“If they tell us that that’s what we should do, that’s what we should do, if the JCVI’s advice doesn’t include particular occupational groups yet we will continue to follow the advice of the experts.”
“We will work with our teaching unions and those who represent other members of staff in schools to make sure that whatever we are able to do after the 22nd of February, the safety of staff and of students of course comes first.”
“We know that our teachers want to be back in school as well.”
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