Unions question schools re-opening plan but minister condemns ‘inflammatory’ comments

Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams

Teaching unions have expressed their misgivings after the Welsh Government announced a four-week summer term from 29 June in which only one-third of children will attend school at a time.

The NEU and NASUWT said that the announcement would create great difficulties for teachers, risk lives and served little educational purpose.

However, the Education Minister Kirsty Williams said says she was “surprised” by the comments.

Speaking during the Welsh Government daily press conference, Kirsty Williams said it was “not helpful” at this stage “to have inflammatory language”.

“I would do nothing and I have done nothing from this entire period when we closed schools for statutory purposes to do anything to risk anybody’s lives.”

She added that teachers would be prioritised for antibody testing.

The NASUWT teaching union had questioned the decision for the limited reopening of schools.

Neil Butler, the union’s national officer for Wales, said: “The Welsh Government is well aware of the extreme difficulty of social distancing in schools, especially for younger children.

“The minister has also admitted that this is for a ‘check in’ and ‘catch up’ so there is clearly no educational purpose behind this decision.

“These are not good enough reasons for risking lives.”

The NEU Cymru teaching union had also criticised plans, with the union’s Wales secretary David Evans said the measures were “too much, too soon”.

He said he was also concerned that in some comprehensive schools hundreds of pupils would be attending at the same time.

Mr Evans questioned how the decision by the Welsh Government adheres to the five principals set out earlier in the pandemic.

He said there had been “little or no consultation” over extending the summer term by an extra week in July.

Mr Evans said members of his union would be told that they do not have to return to working in schools if they feel the risk is too great for them to do so.

‘Sensible’

Others, however, welcomed the news, although NAHT Cymru said it would prefer to see some age groups prioritised over attempting to get all children back into school.

The plan for reopening schools in Wales was also described as a “sensible approach” by Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru.

“It is a sensible approach which balances the educational priority ofbringing children back into the classroom as soon as possible, with the public health priority of ensuring this is done in a manner that is as safe as possible.

“Schools desperately want to be able to have some face-to-face contact with pupils so they can check how well they are managing with remote education and provide any support they might need in terms of their wellbeing.”

She said bringing in small numbers of pupils for “check-in sessions” was a “pragmatic solution”.

‘New normal’

The Education Minister Kirsty Williams said many children were eager to get back to lessons.

“I think for many parents, they will see the value of their children having the opportunity to have face-to-face teaching time in a very small, dedicated group,” she said.

“They can reflect on their experience over the last number of weeks, that they can have some catch-up tuition in a very small group, and that they can begin to prepare for things that they could be doing over the summer holidays and to prepare for September.

“June 29 means there will have been one full month of test, trace and protect, which will continue to expand.”

The Education Minister said the plan gave schools three and a half weeks to ”continue preparing for the next phase.”

“We will use the last weeks of the summer term to make sure pupils, staff and parents are prepared – mentally, emotionally and practically – for the new normal in September.”

‘Rash’

Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Education Minister Siân Gwenllian criticised the decision to re-open schools for all pupils, calling the move “too early”.

Citing the early days of a testing and tracing system and the limited evidence on how the virus is transmitted, particularly between children and adults, Siân Gwenllian called the move “rash” and said many parents and pupils would not be confident to return at the end of June.

“This is the wrong call from the Education Minister. Sending children back to school at the end of June is too early,” she said.

“The Welsh Government’s testing and tracing program has only just begun and we have limited evidence on how the virus transmits in our communities. Many parents and children will not be confident it is safe to return to schools. This is a rash decision.

“Plaid Cymru believes that instead schools should remain closed throughout June and July with a phased re-opening only if it safe to do so in mid-August.

“Refining and ramping up remote learning remains crucial to the plans for the phased re-opening of schools and ensuring that schools remain engaged with every pupil, so that no child is left behind. If we get distance learning right, then this allows us to continue educating our children in the safety of their home, even if we face another lockdown in winter.”

“Furthermore, a longer summer holiday could be detrimental to pupils and consideration should be given to rolling out online activities to ensure children remain occupied.”

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