She said she made the decision following scientific advice.
The Technical Advisory Group’s advice on return to school, states clearly that there are still risks.
Although the decision to return all children is partly based on research showing low transmission rates from children, the document states that this is among those aged under 12. Learners at secondary schools are aged up to 18.
The TAG’s advice on school re-opening to the Welsh Government recommends that schools in Wales plan to open in September with 100% of pupils physically present on school sites, subject to a continuing, steady decline in the presence of COVID-19 in the community, and “appropriate measures” to protect staff and children.
But it cautions: “If early warning information shows a local incident or outbreak then nearby schools should implement appropriate restriction measures. Preparations should always be in place to teach up to 100% of children remotely if needed.
Evidence on transmission among children from the TAG includes:
- Children under the age of 18 make up 22-25% of the population, but consistently make up less than 2% of the total Covid-19 caseload in every country.
- Transmissibility in children under the age of 12 seems to be particularly low, and this leads us to feel able to recommend that these children can be Covid Secure using more flexible controls than the 2m distance, such as seating facing in the same direction.
- There remains some on-going uncertainty in transmissibility of the disease by children, but real world observation of school opening in England and other countries has shown little transmission by children.
The advice for secondary schools
While the advice adds that “no evidence paper has yet been published to identify numbers recommended for class groupings” it suggests “secondary group sizes should be around 10” while the Education Minister said there would be groups of 30.
The advice adds:
Bubbles /Limited groups are not straightforward in Secondary Schools (vs. Primary schools where they are relatively straightforward operationally) given the movement between different classes and behaviour associated with this cohort. SAGE have previously used bubbles to describe households, so it is not helpful to use it in school contexts.
TAG’s advice in the event of a new outbreak
“It is essential to have advance plans for school openings and a contingency plan for closures in case of need, and plans for managing any new outbreak
“Good surveillance and test trace and protect will be needed to pick up cases and outbreaks and these will need to be responded to swiftly.”
Children are unlikely to be the cause of outbreaks (but that’s for the under-12s)
The TAG advice states: “There is increasing confidence that children do not do this (casue outbreaks). We did not see an increase in cases driven by schools being open in March and there are fewer cases now. Evidence on other countries experience can help with this understanding.
“There is potentially a greater risk of transmission between adults at school gates than by children and on a broader point on adults generally (workforce, parents/ carers) – care will be needed around school access as well as within schools.
“The comparative risk of a child ending up in hospital with COVID from returning to schools is small (vs. being struck by lightning). The greater risk of schools reopening is the increased networking that this enables.
What can be learned from schools opening from June?
The TAG guidance says: “A month is not enough time to look at impact in much detail however it should allow us to demonstrate that children might not be as large a factor in transmission.
“Caution on how the role of children is framed however -it is challenging as school openings will help to understand the role of children in transmission to a great extent -it should be presented at this rather than framing it as a “demonstration”.
What the unions say
The NASUWT Cymru and National Education UniomCymru said although they and their members want schools to return, they could only give qualified support to the Education Minister’s announcement that schools would re-open full time in September.
They said there were still concerns about their members’ safety and different plans for primary and secondary schools may be needed.
David Evans, national officer for Wales for the NEU Cymru said with no social distancing on school transport, social distancing was “effectively out the window” despite the plan being for pupils to remain in contact groups of 30.
Neil Butler, NASUWT national official for Wales said: “The NASUWT did not endorse the minister’s plan (when we met to discuss it) on Tuesday. We reserved judgement until we saw the Technical Advisory Group report.
“We got the report a few minutes before the Ministers statement and it seems to define children as under 12.
“It specifically states that secondary children require special treatment through social distancing or bubbles that it suggests should be around 10. This is going to be extremely difficult for secondary schools to sustain. However, we will work with local authorities on this.
“Now efforts have to focus on how this is going to work in secondary schools. It’s going to be very difficult. You can’t lump the entire school population into one bag and call them ‘children’.
“We will be arguing for one plan for high schools and one for primaries. Different guidance is needed for the over-12s.
“We want, and our members want, to be back in school but we have to look at the science and we have looked at the science at it says there are particular issues with secondary schools.
“A blanket return with no social distancings is something we would not support. There are issues with social distancing on school transport and with pupils doing different subjects in secondary schools.
“We cannot say we fully support the plans as they stand.”
David Evans, Wales Secretary for the National Education Union Cymru, said: “When we spoke to the minister she enthused about the idea that children could not transmit the virus but looking at TAG report it says this is low for younger children under 12.
“School transport is also an issue we’ve raised time and again. If there’s no social distancing on school transport then everything is out the window.
“We recognise people need to get back to normal as much as possible and we need to get children back to a stronger educational setting. Many of our members are saying “let’s get on with it” . we are not opposing return but there are still some concerns and we want to work with the Welsh Government,local authorities and schools to overcome those.”
UCAC supported the plan but said guidance on re-opening, due next week, was late in the day for planning.
Dilwyn Roberts-Young, UCAC General Secretary said “With the statement from the Education Minister we can now look forward to welcoming pupils back to our schools in September and we await the publication of the guidelines for reopening.
“However, with the guidance being published so late in the day, there will need to be some forbearance in relation to preparation for the reopening during the first few weeks of the autumn term.
“We welcome the investment in new posts; careful planning will be needed in order to respond to the needs of schools and to ensure opportunities for supply teachers and newly qualified teachers.
“We welcome the Minister for Education’s recognition of the heroic work of headteachers, teachers and all school staff over recent months. UCAC will continue to work at a national, regional and local level to ensure the well-being of our members as they ensure the highest quality education for pupils.”
Unison Wales said school support staff would be key to the success of the full return to schools in September and Welsh Government’s operation guidance, due next week, must reflect this.
“School support staff make up the majority of the schools workforce – including teaching assistants (TAs), administrative staff, cooks, cleaners, lunchtime assistants and care takers – and their role in ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of pupils and schools must not be overlooked.”