The Welsh Government confirmed yesterday that all schools will open on 29 June, with the summer holiday delayed by one week until 27 July, with an extra week added to the Autumn half term holiday.
The education minister announced a range of plans including staggered start, break and lunchtimes and smaller class sizes that is expected to mean only a third of children will be present at school at any one time, although schools may need time to reach this level of operation.
Education minister Kirsty Williams said schools would have three-and-a-half-weeks to prepare for a return in the summer term, which they would use to make sure pupils were prepared mentally, emotionally and practically ‘for the new normal in September.’
There will be much smaller classes, providing secure dedicated time with teaching staff and classmates. This time will include online and personalised classroom experience, getting children and staff ready for a similar experience in September.
Next week, the Welsh Government will publish guidance to support childcare providers and schools, as well as further and higher education institutions. This will include information on managing their facilities and logistical arrangements, including buildings, resources, cleaning and transport.
Returning on 29 June would also mean that test, trace and protect would have been in place for a month, Ms Williams said.
She also announced that teachers and teaching assistants will be prioritised in the new antibody-testing programme.
‘As we continue to keep Wales safe, this approach will be critical,’ Ms Williams said.
‘The evolving science suggests that warm weather and sunlight gives us the best opportunity to ensure more time in school. Waiting until September would mean almost half a year without schooling. That would be to the detriment to the wellbeing, learning progress and mental health of our young people.
‘This is and has been a worrying period for us all. I know that many will feel apprehensive. We have not rushed this work and this decision.
‘The three-and-a-half-week period before the next phase also gives us time to keep watch on developments elsewhere and provides further check-points to review evidence and the roll-out of testing.
‘This is the best practical option that meets my five principles which underpin my decision making.
‘I am also convinced that it is only by returning to their own school that we will see increased attendance from our more vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
‘Working together we will secure equity and excellence for pupils as they check in, catch up, and prepare for summer and September.’
Early years providers are currently able to offer emergency childcare to critical workers and vulnerable children.
National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘We welcome the minister’s announcement today which gives nurseries across Wales time to put plans in place and find out from their parents how many children they are likely to care for from 29 June.
‘However, we have very real concerns about how childcare providers are going to be able to make ends meet. They will have increased costs to pay in order to ensure the safety of their children and staff while at the same time expecting fewer children to be back in their settings. In England where nurseries reopened this week, the occupancy level is only a third of their usual numbers.
‘Keeping children within small groups means that nurseries will still need high staffing levels so most of the workforce will need to be taken out of current furlough arrangements.
‘Nurseries rely on parental fees which is likely to be much lower than normal. Providers will be looking at their plans for the coming weeks but don’t know what the funding arrangements will be after mid-June.
‘Many nurseries in Wales have been operating for emergency childcare throughout the crisis to ensure critical workers can continue to do their vital jobs. Nurseries now need urgent financial support to remain sustainable and be able to offer high quality early education and childcare. Childcare providers will need access to transformation and recovery funding to support the changes that will need to be made to how they operate at a time of lower demand and reduced income.’
Meanwhile, Voice, the union for education professionals said it was concerned that all children would be returning to school at the same time, and said it would have preferred to see years 6, 10 and 12 return, if safe to do so, during the normal summer term, in order to target resources on those groups that need extra support at this time.
Elizabeth Williams, senior professional officer (Wales), said, ‘It has proved difficult for schools in England to extend opening to a few year groups. It will be a logistical nightmare for all schools in Wales – particularly small rural ones – to try and arrange this for all pupils, “in much smaller classes”, even with cohorts and staggered times, and we ask if the additional workload is equal to pupil benefit and what evidence there is to support this.
‘Preparation cannot begin properly until the guidance is available, which reduces the ‘three- and- a half weeks’ by at least a week. Schools, colleges and childcare providers need the guidance now.
‘We had proposed, where practicable, that year 6 should have at least one transition day in their new secondary school during the summer term, or to attend their new secondary school in the first week of the Autumn term before years 8 -13 returned to school.
‘It must be safe for learners and the education workforce to be in school, college or nursery. This means that test, track and tracing must be available throughout Wales, and if there are any increases in the R number, arrangements must be immediately reviewed.’
Voice also said that the availability of childcare and nursery places for the proposed extra week, and the difficulties for members of the workforce in arranging childcare for that week, must be addressed.