Union calls on Welsh Government to ‘take immediate action’ to keep schools open when they return amid Omicron surge
A teachers’ union is calling on the Welsh Government to “take urgent action” to reduce the potential risk of further disruption to education as a result of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
The surge of Covid cases in Wales, driven by the spread of the Omicron variant, is expected to cause significant staff absence issues when schools return next week.
Some schools need to start planning for pupils to return to online learning, Wales’ first minister said last week.
Mark Drakeford said teacher and staff illness will mean some pupils returning to home learning, but decisions would be made by individual councils, rather than the Welsh government.
A rise in Covid infection rates in Flintshire saw schools in the county switch to remote learning for the last three days of the autumn term.
It followed headteachers in the area reporting problems maintaining staff levels, with the recruitment of supply teachers said to be “virtually impossible”.
Omicron poses ‘high risk’ of disruption to Flintshire schools
Officials from Flintshire Council said the situation was also putting a strain on pupils who are due to take exams.
The local authority’s chief executive Neal Cockerton said in a report: “The autumn term has presented significant challenges in managing the impact of Covid-19.”
“Many schools have experienced high case numbers in both pupils and staff which has resulted in a small number of class closures and learners having to switch to remote learning for a short period of time.”
“Senior leaders in schools have had to resort to covering classes and in secondary schools there have been occasions where specialist teachers in some subjects have not been available for short periods of time.”
“This is particularly stressful for examination year groups who have already missed a considerable amount of school based learning over the course of the pandemic.”
Desperate to provide face-to-face teaching.
The NASUWT union said its members “desperately want to be able to provide face-to-face teaching for all children and young people in the next academic term without further problems caused by the pandemic.”
While NAHT Cymru Director Laura Doel said: “The availability of staff is the biggest threat to education in January. Without the workforce fit and well, learners cannot go back to the classroom.”
The Welsh Conservatives want the government in Wales to “follow in the footsteps” of their English counterparts and invite “an army of ex-teachers to return to classrooms” in a bid to ease any potential pressure.
Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said teachers have been “on the frontline throughout the pandemic to support pupils and students and provide them with the best education possible.”
“However, the rising number of cases of the Omicron variant could cause significant disruption in the next academic term with many teachers being forced to self-isolate.
“The Welsh Government must take immediate action to ensure that schools can continue to operate safely and provide high quality education.
“This is particularly important to protect disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people who have often been affected most by the pandemic.”
The NASUWT is urging the Welsh Government to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission by providing government-funded air cleaning units to every school and college that needs these devices.
They are also calling on the Welsh Government to support household close contacts to self-isolate to reduce the risk of transmission and wider disruption within schools.
The union wants the government to commit to providing schools with more resources to enable on-site Covid testing.
The NASUWT has also called for improved financial support for schools and colleges to help with the cost of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absence.
Neil Butler, NASUWT National Official for Wales, said:
“Teachers, pupils and students, and parents will be concerned about the potential risk of further disruption to schools caused by the Omicron variant.
“The Welsh Government must do everything it can to prevent schools from experiencing significant staffing problems next term and further damage to the education of children and young people.”
Staff availability, biggest threat to education.
NAHT Cymru Director Laura Doel said: “The availability of staff is the biggest threat to education in January.”
“Without the workforce fit and well, learners cannot go back to the classroom.”
“If LFTs for close contacts need to be taken for 7 days there must be a supply available for schools.”
“If track and trace are supposed to support the system we must ensure they have the capacity to do so and if parents are to understand what is required of them, there must be clear communication.”
“All of these elements need to be up and running next week to ensure the return to school is the success we want it to be.”
“The pressure on TTP system is an ongoing concern and therefore we maintain that classes should be designated as contact groups for testing purposes to bring consistency across all Local Authority areas and relieve the added pressure to trace close contacts, particularly in primary schools which is extremely difficult.”
“Given that staff availability has been a key area of concerns for months, NAHT Cymru believes prioritising the workforce for booster vaccinations was an opportunity missed.”
“It is too early to tell whether the new measures announced will be enough to keep schools open in January but we welcome the reintroduction of staggered session times and the planning days that will help schools manage their local situations.”
“Remote learning will remain a last resort, with staff absence and risk levels being the determining factors, but be assured that school leaders remain committed to doing all they can to support their learners and their families.”
Ask retired teachers to return to help out
The Welsh Conservative shadow education minister Laura Anne Jones MS said those who are recently retired, or trained as a teacher and moved career, should be asked to consider whether they can find even a day a week for the spring term to help protect face-to-face education.
She said: “Teachers have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic, doing an inspirational job to support their pupils and communities in the face of adversity.”
“However, the disruption to school life and extended periods at home mean pupils’ education has inevitably suffered, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
“With cases of Omicron increasing across the country we must make sure schools and colleges have the teachers available to remain open for face-to-face education.”
“We have to be prepared for the new term ahead, otherwise our children will again feel the brunt. A ‘call to arms’ such as we’ve seen from Nadhim Zahawi and the Conservatives is a great idea and one we should replicate in Wales.”
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