Posted: Fri 29th Jan 2021

Phased return for primary schools could happen after half-term with some flexibility for local ‘circumstances’

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Friday, Jan 29th, 2021

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Primary school children across Wales could begin a phased return to school after half-term if Covid infections rates continue to fall.

However if rates remain high in certain areas some “flexibility may be necessary to allow local authorities to respond to the individual circumstances they face.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford confirmed the alert level four lockdown restrictions will remain in place in Wales for the next three weeks, following a review of the measures.

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”.

Students studying vocational qualifications will also be among those prioritised for the phased return to colleges.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We are making steady progress in bringing coronavirus under control once again. Every day, the vaccination programme is speeding up as more people are vaccinated and more clinics open.

“Each vaccine is another small victory against the virus.

“We’ve seen a really welcome fall in cases of the virus all over Wales, but they are still too high and the NHS continues to be under intense pressure.

“We need to keep the lockdown restrictions in place for a little while longer to help us bring rates of the virus down further. If we can do this, we will create the headroom we need to get children back to school after half term – starting with the youngest at primary schools

“We will work with teachers, colleges, local authorities to plan for the safe return of children to school over the next couple of weeks and keep parents updated.”

Although rates of coronavirus across Wales have fallen below 200 cases per 100,000 people for the first time since early November, north east Wales continues to see a higher than Wales average in its rolling seven day average.

The seven day infection rate in Flintshire is the second highest in Wales according Public Health Wales data, it stands at 334 per 100,000 population as of January 24, nearly double that of the all Wales figure of 177 per 100,000.

Asked today whether a return to schools would be Wales wide or on a more local level, depending on case rates, the first minister said that whilst he would prefer a “common approach” across Wales, “some flexibility maybe needed”.

He said: “I’ve been careful to use the terms flexible and phased this morning, and some flexibility may be necessary to allow local authorities to respond to the individual circumstances they face.

“That will be exactly what we did back in September when we allowed the first two weeks of the autumn term to be a build up and different local authorities approaches that in different ways depending on their circumstances.

“Having flexibility and responsiveness to local circumstances can be part of a common approach which you are trying to achieve across the whole of Wales.

“The indicators that we will rely on will not be a crude reliance on a single indicator. We will need, as our plan says to look at indicators in the round. That includes the very important threshold of the number of people suffering from coronavirus, it will include the positivity rate, it will include figures of people being admitted to hospital and it will include the mitigation measures that we are able to put in place in schools.”

“We will make a judgement in the round and we will make it in partnership with our colleagues in the local education authorities and the unions who represent all those people who work in our schools.”

The first minister was asked why, when cases, admissions and death data were lower in North Wales we entered the lockdown at the same time as elsewhere, with people questioning the fairness of that.

Pointing to the comments on some local authorities taking different action on school reopening, why is an all Wales approach appropriate in one direction, but not the other?

Mr Drakeford said that entering into a Wales wide lockdown when we did was the right thing to have done.

He added: “I wanted an all Wales approach with some flexibility for local authorities in any part of Wales, who needed to take into account their local circumstances to be able to do that.

“Just as we all went into level four together, and I am more certain than ever, that it was the right decision for North Wales, because if we hadn’t done it with a rate of the new variant was already circulating in North Wales, we would have seen the figures even more seriously elevated and even more lives put at risk if we hadn’t moved on an all Wales basis.

“At the moment I’m still committed to all Wales approaches in the examples that we’ve announced today, an all Wales approach on education.

“Just as there was flexibility for local education authorities at the start of the autumn term, I think its right to offer some flexibility for local circumstances to be taken into consideration as we hope to resume face to face education after half term.”

Wales’ education union UCAC welcomed the announcement from the first minister but said they will be raising the issue of vaccinations for staff before any return.

Dilwyn Roberts-Young, UCAC General Secretary said: “Everyone wants to see a return to face-to-face learning as soon as it is safe to do so – the advantages for children, young people, families and staff are clear.

“We welcome the fact that the final decision about any possible phased and flexible return will be based on the latest scientific and medical evidence. We note the need to provide schools and colleges with sufficient notice to put the relevant arrangements in place, before half term.”

“We will continue discussions with Welsh Government, local government and Further Education colleges to ensure that any return is as safe as possible for everyone.”

“We will certainly be raising the issue of vaccinating staff in these discussions, as well as the need to ensure support for the mental, emotional and physical health of staff and pupils.”

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