The announcement to wider reopen Welsh schools on 29th June indicates a failure to prioritise the safety of teachers and communities, argues Kevin Potter
As a parent in Wales, it was a great relief that the Welsh Government decided not to follow Boris Johnson in his decision to re-open schools from the 1st of June. It came as something of a shock therefore when it was announced that Wales would be opening all of its schools on the 29th.
The announcement has not been well received by teachers or unions who are perplexed and angry at the unexpected announcement. Not least because the Welsh government has been in regular contact with teaching unions since the start of the pandemic, who had counselled that it was not safe to re-open schools to all students.
Education minister Kirsty Williams had previously said ‘It is vital that parents, staff, and students have confidence in returning to school. We will only enter the next phase when the evidence and advice suggest that it is the right thing to do’ yet no evidence supporting the decision to open schools on the 29th has been given. Worse still the minister described the decision as being for no more than to ‘check-in’ and ‘catch-up’, meaning the decision is not even based on educational concerns.
Kirsty Williams had set out five criteria that she said would need to be met before considering opening schools
1 The safety and mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and staff
2 Continuing contribution to the national effort and strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19
3 Having the confidence of parents, staff, and students – based on evidence and information – so that they can plan ahead
4 Ability to prioritise learners at key points, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds
5 Consistency with the Welsh Government’s framework for decision making, to have guidance in place to support measures such as distancing, managing attendance, and wider protective actions
The decision makes a mockery of those commitments. Neil Butler, NASUWT national official for Wales, said they would still be holding the Welsh government to those key principles saying he ‘expects that schools will not open on the 29th of June if there is any threat to the physical wellbeing of learners and staff’.
With the R rate still at nearly 1 and death rates still shockingly high in the UK it seems impossible that placing large groups of children into close proximity can do anything other than increase the risk of physical harm from Covid-19.
Teachers in England have described feeling anxious upon returning to the classroom and social distancing measures are likely to be at the very least confusing for younger pupils if not distressing, not exactly a recipe for ‘emotional and physical wellbeing’. Whilst the evidence does seem to suggest that children are at lower risk from the disease, all parents know from experience that schools are breeding grounds for germs, which are brought back and distributed to parents, grandparents, etc. And beyond the teaching staff, there are the cleaners, canteen staff, road safety wardens, grounds people and many others who make a school run, all of whom will be at increased risk of infection.
If the Welsh government wants ‘the confidence of parents, staff, and students…’ much more needs to be done to explain how re-opening will be done safely and why it is necessary for only a few weeks in which little can be achieved from an educational perspective. Further, parents will need to be convinced that there is good reason to place their families at increased risk, and ‘check-in’ and ‘catch-up’ isn’t exactly compelling.
Unions and campaign groups, such as Wales People’s Assembly are campaigning for the decision to be reversed. By refusing to follow the reckless actions of Downing Street Wales had shown greater responsibility and leadership than Westminster, why abandon that now?
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