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Education Minister green lights return to education for some learners in ‘phased, flexible and progressive way’ and with caution

THE Minister for Education in Wales, Kirsty Williams MS has set out plans to get children in Wales back to school today, Friday (Feb 5).

Speaking at the press conference the Minister for Education began by thanking the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Chris Jones and his team, who she said “continue to work around the clock throughout this pandemic, ensuring that Ministers have the most up-to-date and accurate advice and evidence when we are making our decisions.”

The Minister gave an update on vaccinations saying that the very latest figures, showed that we’ve now passed the half a million mark for vaccinations in Wales. She said: “I, and I’m sure all of you, would like to commend our NHS and everyone else involved in this tremendous effort.”

The Minister stated that there were ‘national indicators’, which must be heading in the ‘right direction’ to allow the headroom for pupils to return to school.

Dr. Jones then gave details of the paper which showed the current position of the pandemic and advice about how schools could begin to reopen safely.

Dr. Jones said: “We are clear that the ability to relax the current restrictions remains limited by the presence of the new variant, which is more transmissible than before.

“However, with R currently below 1, there is some headroom for a phased return of primary school children, who have a lower risk of infection but who are at risk of harm while not in school.

“To enable restrictions to be eased in any way, we need to see positive trends in a range of data.

“I am pleased to say that case numbers, levels of community transmission and test positivity rates are decreasing.”

The data showed that Wales has fallen back from the peak of 650 cases per 100,000 people to around 127 cases today. Dr. Jones said that cases are now lower than at previous points when schools were fully open.

He said: “This is really encouraging, particularly given the presence of the new variant, and is the result of everyone’s efforts and sacrifices over the last seven weeks.”
It was also stated that any relaxation of measures should be undertaken in a phased way, looking at the balance of harms and a continuing assessment of the risks, including pressure on the NHS.

“The number of people in hospital with coronavirus remains substantial, it has stabilised and is starting to fall.” Said Dr. Jones.

He added that they would continue to monitor this carefully, alongside other indicators, in assessing the potential impact of any changes, before each new phase of more pupils returning.

The current SAGE estimates for the R number were given as between 0.7 and 0.9.

Dr. Jones said: “It compares well to the position in the summer, and is significantly down from the period before Christmas.”

Kirsty Williams said that the Welsh Government had been clear that children’s education is a priority throughout this pandemic.

She said: “Sadly, we are not yet in a position to be able to see a full return to school for every learner. However, thanks to people following our national guidance, there is a sufficient headroom for us to bring back some of our learners in a phased, flexible and progressive way.”

The Minister set out the plans for a return after the February half term saying: “From 22nd February, our Foundation Phase learners will start to return to school during that week. Children of critical workers and vulnerable learners, as well as those taking exams or assessments and learners in special schools, will continue to be able to attend as they have done throughout the pandemic.”

Giving reasons why the youngest learners have been prioritised the Minister said it was because of the favourable evidence on transmission in younger children, and also because the knowledge that they find it difficult to learn remotely.

“Small numbers of vocational learners, including apprentices, will also be able to return to colleges. Again, this is because of difficulties with remote learning, as they will need to access training or workplace environments in order to undertake their practical qualifications.” She said.

The Minister said that she had been in productive discussions with union colleagues and local authorities and further education partners and that they would be introducing a number of additional measures to provide staff with an added level of assurance for their safe return to face to face teaching.

The measures include the introduction of twice weekly testing for staff members as well as increased financial support for new face coverings.

Welsh Government is providing an additional £5m to support schools, colleges and local authorities to invest further in items they need to keep their premises safe.

Concluding with a cautionary message the Minister said: “I must be absolutely clear: we are told time and time again that our education premises are safe, but it is the added movement around them that contributes to the R number.”

The Minister made a plea to all learners, parents and carers, to continue to follow the guidelines.

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