‘Blanket’ decision to close schools across Wales ‘based on what is happening in the south’ criticised
Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
An education chief has criticised a Welsh Government decision to close schools for Christmas a week early because he claims it’s not supported by local data.
Welsh Government education minister Kirsty Williams issued the advice today, that all of the country’s secondary schools should close at the end of lessons tomorrow and move to online learning from Monday.
The decision came after receiving advice from Dr Frank Atherton, the nation’s chief medical officer.
However the move will not affect children in primary and special schools, which will stay open until December 18 as normal.
Flintshire and Wrexham councils had already unilaterally decided to close schools for the Christmas shutdown tomorrow, a week earlier than planned.
But Denbighshire county council’s lead member for education, Cllr Huw Hilditch-Roberts, said the all-Wales approach was wrong.
He said: “We welcome the clarity from the Minister and fully understand she had to be guided by science, however local data does not support the blanket approach she has taken.
“Obviously our primary concern is the safety of pupils and teachers but we have 12 Covid-19 cases in all of our schools – five children and seven staff.
“We have 714 pupils self-isolating because of Test, Trace and Protect out of 16,000. On Monday we were due to welcome back 306 pupils who were self-isolating, meaning 98% of our children would have been in schools.
“Any decision to close schools should be made on the data and the data in our area doesn’t support the decision.
“I’m obviously disappointed because we are not seeing widescale transmission of the virus in schools, it’s happening in the communities.
“Now we are going to throw all of our secondary school pupils out into those communities from tomorrow to potentially go Christmas shopping with their parents or mix with children from other schools.
“I feel this could result in a community spike because it will be harder to manage with more children in the community for longer.
“This is just another example of Welsh Government taking a blanket approach based on what is happening in the south.”
Cllr Hilditch-Roberts said headteachers had been happy to work with the council up to next Friday and some had even offered to work the following Monday to help Test, Trace and Protect.
Teaching union the NASUWT claims virus transmission in schools is an issue and has raised concerns about the impact of families mixing over Christmas.
However Cllr Hilditch-Roberts said his concern was for those vulnerable children who would now have an extra week away from the security of school.
He said: “Our concern will be how this affects vulnerable children but we will work with families and colleagues in social services despite the short notice we have been given to adjust to this change in timings.”
Kirsty Williams said: “Every day, we are seeing more and more people admitted to hospital with coronavirus symptoms.
“The virus is putting our health service under significant and sustained pressure and it is important we all make a contribution to reduce its transmission.”
She said the reason primary and special schools would be staying open was because those pupils found it more difficult to undertake “self-directed learning”.
She added: “Having spoken to local education leaders, I am confident schools and colleges have online learning provision in place.
“This will also be important in ensuring students are at home during this time, learning and staying safe.
“Critically, and this is very important, children should be at home. This is not an early Christmas holiday, please do everything you can to minimise your contact with others.”
It comes as areas in South Wales have recorded rates of more than 600 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 of the population, over a seven-day period.
The R rate across Wales has increased to 1.27 with a doubling time of just 11.7 days.
Neath Port Talbot has hit a rate of 697 infections per 100,000 of the population and Merthyr Tydfil a rate of 668 per 100,000 over the last seven days.
During the same period the Wales average is 380 per 100,000 people, with a test positivity rate of 17%.
However infection rates in the North have been consistently lower than the national average.
In Anglesey it’s 47.1; in Gwynedd 44; Conwy 88.7; Denbighshire 101.4; Flintshire 175.5 and in Wrexham 230.2 per 100,000.
There have been reports of parents withdrawing children from school in order to self-isolate before the five-day relaxation of lockdown over Christmas.