Coronavirus: the gradual return to school

Published 16/06/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The Welsh Government announced on 9 July that all pupils would return to schools on a full-time basis from the start of the new term on 1 September, subject to coronavirus transmission conditions.

This article was last updated on 24 June 2020.

From Monday 29 June, schools in Wales are set to reopen their doors to pupils in a gradual, staggered return, fourteen weeks after they closed for statutory education due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The purpose is for pupils to ‘Check in, Catch up and Prepare’. This will break up a long period away from school and aims to help them get ready for what the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS, has warned is ‘likely to be a very long and challenging autumn term’ and a ‘new normal’.

What will this mean in practice?

Other than pupils who are shielding or showing coronavirus symptoms, all pupils should have the opportunity to attend their school for educational purposes on several occasions from 29 June until the end of the summer term. However, social distancing requirements will mean that not all pupils will be able to attend at the same time.

Schools and local authorities are currently preparing for how the phased return of pupils will work in practice. Welsh Government operational guidance envisages that schools will vary in how many pupils they can safely accommodate but overall no more than a third of pupils will be present at any one time. The Welsh Government expects that in most schools, learners would have the opportunity to attend on three occasions before the summer holidays. However this may be more often in some cases.

The guidance discusses logistical issues such as hygiene, social distancing, timetables, cleaning, use of space, catering and transport. Year groups will be split into smaller groups with arrival, break and departure times staggered to minimise interaction. Primary schools are advised to limit pupils to mix in groups of no more than eight, recognising that social distancing of 2 metres is unlikely to be possible at all times. In contrast, secondary schools are expected to maintain 2 metres distancing for both pupils and staff.

The existing daily provision for children of key workers and vulnerable children in hubs will continue until the summer holidays, with children attending their usual school from 29 June rather than hub locations as at present. This has been crucial to enabling the response to coronavirus during lockdown as our previous article outlines.

The Welsh Government has produced answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding the increase to school operations from 29 June.

What’s behind the decision?

In the Senedd on 10 June (para 22), the First Minister, Mark Drakeford MS, set out his view on the balance to be struck between protecting public health, and children and young people’s wellbeing and education:

As our chief medical officer has regularly made clear, there is more than one form of harm from coronavirus. Children’s needs must be a real concern as we try to balance the benefits of protection from the virus against the harms caused by loss of education and social contact, and there's no doubt that those harms will impact most on those who are already disadvantaged.

The Welsh Government has pointed to the importance of the Test, Trace, Protect strategy, implemented from 1 June, to the management of schools’ resumption. It says this will be part of the ‘new normal’ and that, assuming guidelines are followed, a positive coronavirus test result in a school will not require the site to be closed and is ‘no cause for alarm’.

The Minister for Education told the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee on 28 April that a change to the current situation regarding schools was ‘not imminent’ and on 7 May ruled out schools reopening on 1 June, the date primary schools in England reopened to certain year groups. The Minister set out five key principles for schools’ return and published a decision framework for the next phase of education and childcare.

The Welsh Government’s traffic light approach to exiting lockdown indicated that priority groups of pupils would return to school first (Amber) before all children and students could return (Green). However, the government subsequently decided from a children’s rights perspective (paras 295-296, 321) that pupils of all ages should return at the same time, in order to give all year groups equal opportunity to attend school.

It emerged that the Chief Medical Officer for Wales’ preferred option was to bring forward the school summer holiday by a month so that pupils would return to school at the start of August. Dr Frank Atherton said at the Welsh Government’s media briefing on 3 June that opening schools in August was ‘not attractive to the unions’ and returning a month earlier than that on 29 June was the ‘second best option’.

The Minister told Members of the Senedd (para 294) that the August option was attractive for a number of reasons including greater time for the Test, Trace, Protect programme to bed in, but that ‘every single union rejected that opportunity’ and did not give their consent. The Minister also said:

Waiting until September would mean that most children would not have stepped foot in a school for at least 23 weeks, and I believe that this would be to the detriment of their development, their learning and their well-being.

In addition to reopening schools from 29 June, the Welsh Government proposed to extend the summer term by one week until 24 July. The week lost from the summer holiday would be replaced by an extra week holiday in the autumn meaning a two-week half term break in October. However, extending the summer term is down to local authorities and schools and it has been reported that less than a quarter of schools will open for the additional week.

Alongside its decisions, the Welsh Government published advice from its Technical Advisory Cell on the latest understanding of COVID-19 with respect to children and education.

What will learning look like during the rest of the summer term?

The Welsh Government has used powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to disapply requirements on schools to deliver the curriculum. It says this is necessary to ensure schools have the flexibility to focus on the health and well-being of learners, supporting them to re-integrate back into a school environment, and to enable a ‘blended learning’ approach (explained below).

Since the closure of statutory education provision on 20 March, schools have been expected to support pupils’ learning from home, through the use of online resources such as Hwb. This continues even with the reopening of schools from 29 June. Although pupils will have the chance to attend their school, this will not amount to more than a few days over three or four weeks and they will continue to learn at home for the foreseeable future. This is described as a ‘blended learning approach’ as it combines face to face learning in school with remote learning at home.

The Welsh Government has published guidance on learning over the summer term, following the Stay Safe. Stay Learning guidance it issued in April. This states that learner and staff well-being should be the primary concern and that schools can draw on the Health and Well-being element of the new curriculum to be introduced in September 2022.

Teachers and pupils are advised not to attempt to ‘cover’ or ‘catch up’ in the summer term on all of the activity they’ve missed. The Welsh Government wants them to focus on developing ‘learning fitness’ and readiness for the next steps rather than focusing on attainment levels and learning loss.

There are particular implications for Year 10 and Year 12 students due to the curriculum time lost ahead of entries for qualifications next year. The independent regulator, Qualifications Wales, is considering options for various scenarios during academic year 2020/21. It also consulted on arrangements for awarding GCSEs, AS and A levels this year, following the cancellation of the 2020 exam series. The regulator’s approach takes account of Welsh Government policy as set out in a Ministerial Direction.

How have stakeholders reacted?

The teaching unions have criticised the decision to reopen schools from 29 June. For the NEU, it is ‘too much too soon’ and the NASUWT has called it the ‘most dangerous option’ saying any benefits to pupils of ‘checking in’ were ‘not good enough reasons for risking lives’. Meanwhile, UCAC said ‘the more pupils who return, the greater the risk’ and was ‘shocked’ that the Welsh Government ‘ignored the unions’ opinion that Years 6, 10 and 12 should have taken priority if schools were to reopen before the summer’.

The unions representing headteachers and school leaders have cautiously welcomed the guidance issued to inform preparations for schools’ return. The NAHT is ‘supportive overall of the government’s endeavours’ while ASCL says it is vital that we ‘get on with the vital task of checking on children’s wellbeing and learning, and beginning to restore a sense of normality after this long period of disruption’.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has highlighted that ‘children who, perhaps because of lack of resources at home, disabilities or learning needs, or whose parents are juggling work with home schooling, have not been receiving their full right to an education’. She adds that ‘there is no doubt that the crisis has reinforced education inequities that were already present before schools closed to most pupils’.

At the start of May, Parentkind published results of a survey indicating that parents in Wales were reluctant for their children to return to school too soon. 40% did not want to consider a timeframe until safety was assured, whether that is from government or school leaders/teachers, while a further 13% said they would only send their children back to school when staff and pupils have been vaccinated, even if that is in 12 to 18 months’ time. Only 6% of parents in Wales said back in early May that they would be comfortable with a return in July.

It should be recognised that this was the position at the start of May and parents’ views may have changed since then. However, the survey shows the level of parental anxiety about returning to school too quickly, whether concerns are due to the (albeit minimal [paras 6-7]) risk to children and young people’s own physical health or the wider risks to society (PDF, page 4) of increasing transmission of the virus.

What impact is coronavirus having on children?

Together with the Welsh Government, the Welsh Youth Parliament and Youth Cymru, the Children's Commissioner undertook an online survey to gather children’s views on how they have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This showed concerns among secondary-aged pupils in particular, with only 11% of respondents saying they did not feel worried about their education. The most commonly reported concern they had about learning was that they were worried about falling behind (54%).

We have written elsewhere about the impact of coronavirus on children’s rights and warning from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (PDF) of the ‘grave physical, emotional and psychological effect’ of the pandemic on children.

The Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee is scrutinising the Welsh Government’s response to coronavirus and has issued an open call for evidence. Emerging issues include the impact on vulnerable children, safeguarding those at particular risk, physical and mental health, and the disproportionate effect of lockdown and school closures on deprived pupils.

We have also produced articles explaining the implications of the coronavirus outbreak for higher education, further education and apprenticeships, and childcare.

We are keeping updated a series of useful sources of information regarding coronavirus. Here is a link to the Schools section.

Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.