Posted: Sat 13th Jun 2020

Union calls on education minister to rethink decision over reopening schools in Wales

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Saturday, Jun 13th, 2020

The education minister has been urged to rethink plans to reopen schools across Wales later this month.

As part of the Welsh Government’s ‘Check in, Catch Up, Prepare for Summer and September’ pupils of all ages will be able to attend school for four weeks from June 29th.

Year groups will be split into cohorts with staggered starts, lessons and breaks. It is expected that this will mean, at most, a third of pupils present at any one time, though schools may need time to reach this level of operation.

Announcing the changes last week Education Minister Kirsty Williams said she remains “convinced that it is only by returning to their own school that we will see increased attendance from our more vulnerable and disadvantaged children.”

However public sector union UNISON has called on the minister to urgently review her decision and argues that the risks are too high.

The union says it has drafted workplace guidance and believes it does not provide enough direction or clarity and there is not enough time to ensure the safety of staff and pupils in schools by late June.

Jonathan Lewis, UNISON schools forum chair, said:“UNISON is not prepared to compromise the safety of teaching assistants, cleaners, caterers, caretakers or administrative staff in schools.

“We have considered the operational guidance and there simply doesn’t contain enough detail, particularly within the short time constraints.

“Of course school support staff want to get back to work in schools, but we cannot be expected to take unnecessary risks to fulfil that within a few short weeks.

“Robust planning takes time. We will continue to work with Welsh government, local authorities and other stakeholders to plan and assess a return to schools, but it cannot be a rushed job.

“We are confident thorough planning could take place over the summer in time for the start of term in September. We urge the Education Minister to take a sensible approach, in line with the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, and postpone re-opening until later in the year.”

Rosie Lewis, UNISON schools lead, added: “We’ve assessed the guidance and UNISON is absolutely clear that we cannot support the reopening of schools at the end of June. The risks are too high.

“We don’t believe there will be enough cleaning staff to fulfil the mammoth task of keeping schools clean. We don’t think enough school support staff will be available to allow safe staffing levels for the extended week.

“The operational guidance around social distancing and who is clinically vulnerable is in conflict with other government guidance. We are yet to see any guidance around the antibody testing and wider roll out of the test, trace and protect system. The list goes on.

“We are inundated with queries from school support staff from across Wales who are anxious about the Minister’s proposals.

“It is crucial that staff and parents are confident about children returning to schools, and it’s fairly clear that the rush to get back later in June is not supporting that.

“I am no longer convinced the Minister is putting wellbeing at the heart of her strategy and we are calling for her to urgently review these timescales and work with trade unions to reopen schools in September.”

However the education minister has defended the decision to reopen schools to pupils of all ages, stating that the decision making “will always be guided by the latest scientific and public health advice.”

In an open letter school staff, Ms Williams reiterated the expectation that a maximum of a third of pupils will be in school at any one time and that many schools will see fewer pupils than that.

There will be staggered starts, breaks and finishes.

Ms Williams writes: “Thank you for all that you have done, and are continuing to do, in supporting our children and young people through these challenging times.

“Thousands of you have worked in hubs supporting our more vulnerable learners and children of critical workers – you have been integral to our national fight against coronavirus.

“We have met these challenges together and have shown that the education family in Wales always steps up to ensure that every single young person is supported with their well-being and to learn and grow.

“I know that many of you will be slightly wary about a return to school. I completely understand. This has been, and continues to be, a stressful time.

“Many of us will know people who have been ill, or have lost someone. I certainly do. It has been a time of anguish and agony for people right across Wales.

“However, I have to take decisions in the best interests of education in Wales. That means, ultimately, supporting every single child in Wales, no matter their background.

“This period from 29 of June is our opportunity to keep true to that. Once again, thank you for all that you have done, and will continue to do.

“Together we will keep education safe.”

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