Any news of schools re-opening will be understandably seized upon by parents struggling to juggle the demands of working and childcare.
So the announcement from the Welsh Government that the youngest children aged three to seven could start returning from February 22 was no doubt a welcome one to many.
But council leaders have now warned that schools won’t re-open to more pupils in Wales after half term unless local situations with coronavirus allow it. They have said they will decide nearer the time whether it is safe to do so.
Merthyr Council Leader, Cllr Lisa Mytton, reflected the views of many in saying: “While we are working with schools and planning for this proposed return to school of Foundation Phase children, we will only do so if the situation is safe enough.”
Monmouthshire Council leader Richard John said headteachers had been left in the dark with no new re-opening plan issued by Welsh Government. He said that left them just three days to plan any return as they break up for half term week on Friday, January 12.
Cllr John said Welsh Government had “dangled this carrot that schools are going to re-open to younger children” after half term, but that might not happen.
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“They are building expectations that schools will be open for the Foundation Phase from February 22 so we need the plans and evidence to back that up.
“Anxiety is very high in the teaching profession and there are things the Welsh Government could do to reassure them.”
Although Covid-19 rates are falling in Wales there is still worry about how schools might cause infections to rise.
Cllr Ian Roberts, leader of Flintshire County Council and Welsh Local Government Association education spokesman, said Foundation Phase children could not be taught effectively remotely, but local situations had to be taken into consideration whether to bring them back to school.
His own council, which now has the second highest coronavirus rate in Wales after Wrexham, will decide next week whether to advise schools that they can bring back three to seven-year-olds from February 22.
“We will make a decision towards the middle of next week. It is half term next week but headteachers won’t work through half term, they will have prepared this week for a return, but it is possible there may not be a return,” Cllr Roberts said.
“We met headteachers yesterday (February 8) and they were not all happy. Some were concerned and anxious.
“It would be improper, as leader of the council, if I was not concerned. We will look next week at rates in Flintshire and I have explained that to the minister.”
Anglesey Council Leader, Councillor Llinos Medi, has also said schools in her local authority won’t open unless the council decides it’s safe.
“If we are not comfortable that the rate of coronavirus cases on Anglesey is safe enough to allow the return of children and staff, we won’t be opening our school buildings,” she said in a statement on the council’s website.
Councillor Rob James, leader of the opposition Labour group at Carmarthenshire Council, said: “We need to be looking at bringing children back safely.
“As a father of two children under seven I am extremely aware they are unable to learn virtually. Cases are coming down, but it obviously depends on local case numbers.”
Find out about coronavirus cases in your area:
A spokesperson for Powys County Council said: “Although the public health situation has improved across Wales, a cautious approach is still required because we know that the situation can change very quickly.
“We are also committed to face-to-face teaching and learning as soon as possible but only when it is safe to do so.
“A return to school for our learners will only be possible if the transmission rate continues to fall and public health conditions allow their return.
“We are still in a serious situation so it is vital that we all follow the advice to stay at home and protect our health service.
“Our priority is the safety and wellbeing or our learners and school staff. We will continue to work with our schools, supporting them during these difficult times and help them plan for the return of pupils when it is safe to do so.”
A spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association said: “As agreed with Welsh Government last week, local circumstances will be taken into account to allow a phased return to schools during the week commencing 22 February. The position in Anglesey, which takes account of local concern regarding the current infection rate in the area, is in line with this national approach.”
A spokesperson for the Welsh Government said: “We’re having productive meetings with unions, local authorities and heads on the phased return of learners – this includes discussing the guidance which will be issued to schools to ensure schools are a safe environment for school staff and learners.”
What unions say needs to happen for schools to re-open
Education unions sent a list of demands to the Welsh Government last week saying what they wanted to happen before schools could re-open to more children.
The unions warned the list was “not exhaustive”. The list ( not necessarily in order) is as follows:
• A further consideration of flexible and phased return
• A discussion on vaccination including the context of special schools where social distancing is particularly challenging and for those delivering personal care
• Strict social distancing
• Removal of movement for teaching assistants from one class/bubble to another
• Those over 50 not to be in school settings with learners who cannot social distance
• Masks in secondary plus medical grade masks for teachers in the Foundation Phase
• Specific monies for strengthening mitigations via staff, and masks
• Rotas: reduce class sizes to support social distancing to be led by size of rooms, with two meter square for every pupil
• Ensure adequate planning, preparation and assessment time
• PPE for those who work with children with complex SEN/ALN
• Clear messaging for staff, pupils, parents and wider community
• Further review of Operational Guidance in relation to the new variants
• Further consideration of the guidance relating to pregnant members of staff (28 weeks);
• A consideration of staff capacity;
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