Posted: Tue 29th Jun 2021

Welsh government wants to minimise number of children having to self-isolate from schools – unions say plans are impractical

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

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Wales’ education minister has outlined plans to bring coronavirus safety measures in schools under local control.

The plans would aim to reduce the ‘disproportionate’ number of learners having to self-isolate but unions say the proposals are impractical.

Around 1,100 school pupils are currently self-isolating in Flintshire following a rise in coronavirus cases in the county.

Flintshire Council has reported a total of 60 new Covid-19 cases across 24 schools since last Monday (June 21, 2021), which in some cases has caused entire year groups to be sent home.

Currently all education settings in Wales follow national guidance in terms of face masks, social distancing, hygiene measures, the use of lateral flow tests and self-isolation for “bubbles”.

The newly appointed education minister, Jeremy Miles, has said there is a “need to move to a more localised approach rather than a blanket approach” as Wales moves into the next stage of the pandemic.

The minister said that whilst education settings will not be “back to normal by September”, the Welsh government will “look to gradually ease the extraordinary measures we’ve had to put in place.”

A new ‘framework’ will be published which will allow an “escalation or de-escalation of measures, such as testing the use of face coverings, and social distancing.”

These decisions would be made by local incident management teams and do not mean that safety measures can be scrapped altogether.

Mr Miles said the framework will also look “at best practice across Wales to ensure that we do not have a disproportionate number of learners self isolating.”

He said: “While we will not simply be back to normal by September we will look to gradually ease the extraordinary measures we’ve had to put in place.

The minister said: “Clearly as part of our discussions with partners, we need to be looking at the key challenges which schools colleges and universities currently face.”

“That includes looking at best practice across Wales to ensure that we do not have a disproportionate number of learners self isolating.”

“While class or year bubbles have played an important role over the last year, we need to ensure that settings distinguish between bubbles on the one hand and personal contact with cases on the other.”

“Linked to this we want to discuss how settings can return to the usual session times as opposed to having staggered start and finish times as currently in place.”

Changes won’t mean a “wholesale removal” of Covid measures but are about schools being able to make decisions based on the “balance of harms and minimising disruption to learning all within the wider context of our successful vaccine program and relatively low case numbers.”

Eithne Hughes, Director of ASCL Cymru, said Mr Miles “suspects some schools in Wales are guilty of sending home large numbers of young people to self-isolate unnecessarily.”

“The very last thing any school leader wants to do is to now have learners lose any more time in the classroom following the significant disruption to education they have experienced over the course of the last 16 months.” She said.

“Schools take their responsibilities very seriously and are not trigger-happy when dealing with issues where learners have been in close contact with positive Covid cases. They are following the advice and safe practice guidelines from the experts at the Test, Track and Protect team and Public Health Wales to the letter. She added.

Director of school leaders’ union, NAHT Cymru, Laura Doel, said they want to see an end to restrictions on social distancing in schools as soon a possible.

However, “the plan to do away with ‘class bubbles’ but retain a requirement for schools to identify close contacts of pupils is impractical.”

“For self-isolation purposes, schools would be expected to provide intelligence to the contact tracers at Public Health Wales.”

“This would include knowing who they were near in school as well as when being dropped-off and picked up. Welsh government needs to be realistic about what is actually possible here.” Ms Doel said.

On Monday Connah’s Quay High School urged pupils not to mix with children from other year groups outside of school following a number of positive self tests.

The school said a ‘number’ of Year 7 pupils have reported positive results after taking the lateral flow self-tests.

They were sent home on Monday along with Year 8’s after the school was advised by the contact tracing team in Flintshire that some pupils had been mixing together.

Ms Doel said, “we are utterly confused by the Minister’s statement, which we think could actually increase the number of close contacts rather than reduce them.”

She also said the proposed ending of staggered start and finish times, such as lunches and breaks, “is premature and would have an impact on a school’s ability to carry out a host of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as enabling staff to clean rooms and equipment with sanitiser.”

“In addition, there’s as yet no clarity on face-coverings among these measures for September.”

“The reality is that this halfway house approach could create as many problems as it solves.”

“The Welsh government also needs to be realistic about what the data is telling them and the level of protection school staff currently have.”

“The Minister accepts there has been an increase in cases linked to the Delta variant and acknowledges that it may not be until the end of September that all education staff will have had the chance to take up the offer of a second jab.” She said.

Despite the growing number of pupils having to self isolate, Flintsahire council has pledged to keep schools open until the end of the school year.

Claire Homard, the council’s chief officer for education, said: “Whilst the number of classes affected by positive cases has risen in recent weeks, there are no current plans to close any schools in response to Covid cases or to close schools early before the end of term.

“Flintshire schools receive excellent support from the council’s TTP (Test, Trace, Protect) team and act swiftly to identify contacts when a notification of a positive case is received.

“Schools try hard to keep the number of pupils self-isolating to a minimum but this is dependent on the building and teaching arrangements in each individual school.

“When pupils are required to isolate, which is in line with national health guidance, then schools will move them onto remote teaching platforms to ensure continuity of learning.”



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