Flintshire schools will return to face to face learning only “when it is safe to do so”
There’s been lots of noise in the media – quite rightly – over the past few days about plans for education to resume following the Christmas break.
Pupils at some schools in Wales are expected to return as soon as Wednesday (January 6), with others following on January 11 after ministers agreed a “flexible” approach with local authorities.
However, with a new coronavirus variant spreading across Wales, teachers’ unions want face-to-face teaching to be suspended until schools are able to review their risk assessments.
Flintshire council took an early stance with regards to plans for schools to restart, it announced that pupils will only return “when it is safe to do so” and lessons will be conducted online from this week.
A decision on when face to face learning with restart in Flintshire won’t be announced until at least this coming Wednesday.
Chief officer for education, Claire Homard and the leader of the council Cllr Ian Roberts published a joint letter on December 17 outlining the plans.
In the letter they said: “Flintshire schools will not reopen for face-to-face learning for the week beginning 4th January 2021 and will provide online learning for all pupils.”
“The decision when to move schools back to face to face learning will not be made until the 6th January when the local data around the virus has been analysed and the level of risk determined.”
“This will be communicated to parents as quickly as possible.”
“The Council’s aim is to return to face to face learning as quickly as possible, but only when it is safe to do so.”
The letter goes on to say: The expectation is “that all schools will be back to delivering face-to-face learning by the 18th January, unless exceptional circumstances exist.”
Latest data – as of Sunday – shows 672 positive Covid cases recorded in the county in the past in the 7 days to Dec 29.
Nearly a quarter of all those going for tests in Flintshire are returning a positive result and the seven day rolling average is 430 cases per 100,000 population, nearly nine times higher than when Flintshire was placed into a local lockdown on October 1.
Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said: “We understand that the Welsh Government is seeking to strike a balance between minimising the risk of transfer of COVID-19 and providing face to face education for all children.
“However, the latest data shows that in large parts of Wales, control of infection has been lost and the lack of understanding regarding the new strain has now created intolerable risk to many school communities.
Ms Doel continued: “We believe that it is wrong to keep people in harm’s way whilst the implications of the new variant of the virus are still being discovered.
“The currently available information contains no solid scientific evidence regarding the impact of the new variant on schools.
“In particular, there is nothing that outlines the risks to pupils and teachers of maintaining in-person tuition.
“With this in mind we had begun legal proceedings against the government to force them to disclose the scientific information they are withholding.
Speaking on BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement, first minister Mark Drakeford said: “We reached an agreement with our local education colleagues in Wales that we will have a phase and flexible return to school.”
“That means that over the first two weeks there will be flexibility for local authorities and head teachers to assess the situation in their own individual context, see how many teachers have themselves been affected by the virus, for example.”
“Then to phase a return in a way that is safe, but also continues to place a priority on the needs of our young people whose lives have been so badly disrupted, whose education has suffered through 2020, and whose needs we have to continue to put at the front of our priority list.”
“While we are all learning more about this variant, there is no evidence that young people get the illness more severely as a result of the new variant.”
“Our technical advisory group (TAG) will be looking at all the evidence again early next week and of course we will continue to make decisions in the light of the best knowledge, research and information that’s available to us at the time.”
In an update on social media, Education minister Kirsty Williams Tweeted: “We agreed before Christmas a flexible return to school in January, so that local decisions can be made based on local circumstances.”
“Some schools return next week, with the majority open fully by 18 January, with remote learning until then.”
“We continue to monitor and publish the latest evidence, and our science advisory group TAG meets again this week.”
Coronavirus testing is to be rolled out in schools and colleges this month.
Unions say they are “supportive of the concept” of the use of lateral flow tests in schools.
A joint statement from teaching unions in Wales said: “It is our view that due to the chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance, and an absence of appropriate support, the Welsh Government’s proposals will be inoperable for most schools and colleges.”
“Schools and colleges in Wales simply do not have the staffing or building capacity to carry this out themselves.”
“It is not the responsibility of either teaching or support staff to administer the tests and the Welsh Government must confirm as a matter of urgency who will be undertaking that task as schools.”
Mark Drakeford said that serial testing using the new forms of lateral flow devices were used “successfully” in secondary schools in South Wales as part of a mass testing programme, “so we know it can be done.”
The tests will allow more children and more teachers to “stay safely in the classroom without having to be sent home because another child or another staff member has tested positive.” He said.
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