Most children in Wales will not be back in school for face-to-face teaching until January 11 – with a full return to the classroom in all schools not expected until January 18.
Soaring coronavirus rates forced schools to shut early and move to online teaching this week and it will continue in most part of Wales when term starts again on January 4.
The Welsh Government and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) have agreed to give schools and councils the flexibility for a staggered start to term with initial teaching online and a full return on January 18 at the absolute latest. Most pupils will be back in schools by January 11.
Several councils, including Cardiff, Newport, are already telling parents and teachers that all pupils will not return for face-to-face teaching until the start of the second week of term on January 11. Powys is expecting all pupils to be back earlier on January 6, the Wednesday of the first week of term. Ceredigion will expect pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13 back in school on the 6th and all other year groups from Monday, 11th.
Sally Holland, Wales’ Children’s Commissioner, said she could not support the plans saying it would hit disadvantaged groups hardest.
“Children and young people have also told me that uncertainty and repeated periods out of the classroom have a negative impact on their emotional and mental health and we must remember the massive amount of face-to-face learning that children and young people have lost in 2020. This statement does not provide the assurances they need over the Christmas break,” she said.
A WLGA spokesman said: “The plan to return to schools in January will give some certainty, whilst also allowing for flexibility to take account of local circumstances.
“Teachers, school staff, learners, and parents and carers’ response has been remarkable throughout this challenging year. It has not been easy, and we thank them for their continued patience and perseverance to help keep our communities safe.
“To help curb the rapid spread of the virus, we must all continue to do all we can to protect ourselves, each other and our communities.”
Wales is set to go into Level 4 restrictions from December 28. In those restrictions, schools do remain open but the Welsh Government has agreed with councils to have a phased return in which some teaching in the first week will be through online platforms.
This coincides with rapid testing being due to start in schools in Wales at the start of the January term. Wales Health Minister Vaughan Gething has previously confirmed that teachers would be carrying out the tests and that Welsh Government will work with schools to prepare them.
A spokesperson for Newport council said: “Newport schools will offer blended learning during the first week of the spring term (week commencing Monday 4 January 2021).
“This decision follows discussions with Welsh Government and the WLGA, and recognises the high transmission rates of Covid-19 across the city and potential impact on the capacity of the education workforce at the start of the new term.
“Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 January will be set aside for head teachers to assess staffing levels and review risk assessments. As a result, there will be no facility for any children to attend school on these days.
“Between Wednesday 6, and Friday 8, January 2021, hubs will be available for the children of critical workers (nursery to Year 8) and other children with specific needs as assessed by their head teacher.
“Children eligible for free school meals will receive a voucher in lieu of free school meal provision for this week.
“Face-to-face learning is expected to resume on Monday, January 11, 2021.”
A spokesman for Cardiff Council said: “Cardiff council has set out the following plans for January, however these may need to be adapted should the position in Cardiff see significant change between now and the start of term.
“In Cardiff, schools will continue to provide distance learning to pupils from Monday, 4 January. This is to enable schools to assess staff availability and to make appropriate plans for the return of face-to-face learning.
“From Wednesday 6 January, schools will provide provision for vulnerable learners and critical worker childcare, where they have the capacity to do so.
“In light of the increasing transmission it will be important to ensure that provision in Cardiff schools supports frontline blue light services, NHS, school workers and social care as part of the critical workforce.
“Schools will make local decisions, made in discussions with parents over need. Priority should be given when both parents are critical workers and where all other childcare options have been exhausted.
“From Monday, January 11, the expectation is that all pupils will return for face-to-face learning.
“Exceptions may be made if a school is affected by significant community transmission or staff availability, which impacts on school capacity.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We all recognise that these are unprecedented times and that we have to be agile in how we respond to the impact the virus has on our communities.
“By agreeing to a flexible approach during the first two weeks of the new school term in January enables our schools to put in place proportionate arrangements which reflect their specific circumstances and is guided by public health and safety considerations.
“We know from our children and young people that they learn best when in the classroom receiving face to face learning so any measures we put in place must look to minimise further disruption to their education.”
However, teachers’ union NASUWT criticised the short notice given to schools.
General secretary Patrick Roach said: “Yet again ministers are announcing significant changes affecting schools with little or no time to prepare before the Christmas closure period.
“This decision demonstrates that Covid-19 transmission in schools is a major factor in continuing the spread of the virus.”
And Laura Doel, NAHT Cymru Director said: “Yet again schools are expected to pick up the pieces of a last-minute announcement on school reopening.
“With less than 48 hours until the end of term, school leaders across Wales must develop a phased return plan for January and share this with parents.
“Today headteachers are hauled up in meetings with the Local Authorities trying to work out what a phased return will look like. The result, despite the best efforts of Local Authority’s to support schools, will be an inconsistent picture across Wales that lacks clarity and leaves headteachers to have to deal with the fallout from parents who are justifiably angry about the uncertainty.”