Schoolchildren aged between three and seven in Wales will return to the classroom from February 22, the country’s education minister has confirmed.
Kirsty Williams said the post-half-term return was prioritised for the youngest learners because they were the least likely to transmit coronavirus, and had more pronounced difficulties with remote learning.
On Friday, Ms Williams told the Welsh Government’s press briefing: “We have been clear that our children’s education is a priority throughout this pandemic.
“Sadly, we are not yet in a position to be able to see a full return to school for every learner.
“However, thanks to people following our national guidance, there is sufficient headroom for us to bring back some of our learners in a phased, flexible and progressive way.”
She added: “As we all know, you only get one childhood, which is exactly why we are all working so hard to support young people back into schools so they can learn with their friends.”
Ms Williams said added movement around schools would contribute to the country’s R number, and made a plea for pupils, parents and carers to continue to follow guidelines.
“By following the guidance restricting contact with others, we are ensuring children and young people are able to do what we all want, which is to be back learning with their friends,” she said.
Ms Williams said the public’s adherence to national lockdown rules and guidance had created “sufficient headroom” to allow for the phased return to classrooms for those in Wales’ foundation phase years.
The country’s R number is estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, while its seven-day case rate is 130 cases per 100,000 of the population.
In Wales, children of critical workers and vulnerable learners, those in special schools, as well as those taking assessments have been allowed to access classroom learning throughout the pandemic.
Ms Williams said from February 22 they would also be joined by small numbers of vocational learners, including apprentices, to colleges in order to access training or workplace environments for their practical qualifications.
She said the return to face-to-face learning would come alongside “additional measures” to provide staff with an added level of assurance for their safety, including the introduction of twice-weekly testing for staff and £5 million to support in safety items such as face coverings.
Wales’ deputy chief medical officer Dr Chris Jones told the briefing that transmission rates among young children were low.
“They do not get severe forms of the disease and they do not tend to transmit it as much as adults or even older teenagers,” he said.
Dr Jones said it was “not surprising” there were positive cases in schools before Christmas due to high rates of community transmission, but now rates were “much lower” he anticipated far fewer cases from classrooms.
National Education Union (NEU) Cymru’s senior Wales officer Gareth Lloyd said Ms Williams had taken a “sensible approach” in allowing a flexible return after half term.
Mr Lloyd said: “We have been clear, we believe that at least three planning days should be used after half term, with no learners in school, to give time for educators to help make the necessary plans for a safe return.
“Our members want a wider return in a safe working environment and we are expecting discussions next week with Welsh Government to ensure robust mitigation measures are put in place.”
Dilwyn Roberts-Young, general secretary of the UCAC teachers union, said: “We welcome the announcement of mitigating measures to further reduce risks, including regular testing for staff and investment in equipment and modifications.
“However, the genuine concerns of teachers in the foundation phase about this return must be acknowledged. We urge local authorities and schools to take the local context into account in making their plans and encourage all concerned to consider a gradual, flexible return.”
Laura Doel, director of school leaders union NAHT Cymru, said members were “bitterly disappointed” the decision had been imposed “whilst there are too many questions left unanswered”.
She said: “We have not been provided with the rationale for this decision or definitive scientific evidence to support what we consider to be the rushed and premature wider reopening of schools.”