Open letter to headteachers from Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education.
It is almost a year ago since, with a heavy heart, I took the decision to close schools in Wales.
As a Government we have always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to open, when the evidence shows it is safe to do so.
But we now have some hope. Community transmission rates of COVID-19 are much lower than in January, when I took the decision not to reopen to face to face learning other than for children of critical workers vulnerable learners and special schools and PRUs, and all other indicators are heading in the right direction.
Today our Technical Advisory Group, scientists and public health officials who advise Government, have published a paper in which they advise that the improvement in the public health situation allows us to consider a “partial and phased return to face-to-face learning in schools”.
Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr Frank Atherton has also published a statement confirming that “with Rt currently below 1, any headroom should be dedicated to a phased return of primary school children, who have a lower risk of infection, and then secondary school children, in small cohorts and employing a blended learning approach”.
I would like to thank all the education workforce for their continued hard work and dedication in these uncertain and anxious times. In particular the improvement in online teaching during this ‘second lockdown’ has been noticeable to parents and learners across Wales.
However, we know that remote learning is hardest for our youngest learners, who are missing out on the essential foundations for their learning and development.
There continues to be strong evidence that children and younger people are much less susceptible to severe clinical disease than older people. We know from the ONS occupational analysis of 25 January that rates of death from COVID-19 were lower for education professionals as a whole than for people of the same age and gender more widely.
Based on the advice from our Technical Advisory Group, our Chief Medical Officer, and ongoing engagement and discussion with our Local Authorities and Education Unions I have decided that from 22 February, we will start a phased return to face to face learning for our Foundation Phase learners (3 – 7 year olds).
There will be some flexibility over this first week, with all Foundation Learners (including those in non-maintained settings) in school by the end of that week. In time for some of our youngest learners to experience for the first time the joys of dressing up for St David’s Day.
I know that many of you as well as parents/carers and learners want certainty that we won’t need further closures. I cannot give you that certainty. What I can tell you is that in being cautious and taking a phased approach, we can monitor the impact of a careful opening up to face to face learning on transmission, and rates in staff as well as children and continue to take decisions based on evidence.
Any further phasing of more year groups will be considered as part of the next 21 day review on the 19 February when we have more detail around any further headroom.
Schools will still be expected to provide education for vulnerable children and children of critical workers, and special schools and PRUs should continue to remain open where possible.
I know that many in the profession may be anxious, in particular at news coverage of new variants of COVID-19.
Our Chief Medical Officer confirms that evidence suggests that schools have been successful in providing safe environments for children and teachers.
TAG also confirms that the most effective preventative measures are ones schools have already put in place, but have made recommendations to strengthen existing mitigating measures in light of the new variants.
We will publish updated operational guidance early next week based on recommendations from TAG, including the use of high quality face coverings for staff where social distancing cannot be maintained and contact groups. This will be funded by an additional £5 million for schools.
Schools and settings will be offered lateral flow tests for all staff twice weekly. These will be collected by staff and used at home in order to regularly and quickly identify positive asymptomatic cases. Along with social distancing and other measures put in place by schools and settings this will reduce the likelihood of adults unwittingly spreading the virus.
I am also pleased at the speed of our vaccination programme which will see all four priority groups, including those providing personal care to the clinically extremely vulnerable in our special schools offered vaccinations by end of February.
In order to keep transmission low as we take cautious first steps we will work with local authorities and our unions to reinforce Keep Wales Safe messages so that parents/carers continue to be vigilant including socially distanced behaviour at school gates, not permitting sleep overs or other household mixing outside of school, and not sending children to school if they have symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.
Diolch o galon
Kirsty Williams AS/MS
Y Gweinidog Addysg
Minister for Education