Primary schools to begin ‘phased return’ from February 22

Education minister confirms that younger pupils will return after half term

PRIMARY schools in Wales will begin a “phased return” from February 22, starting with the youngest pupils, Education Minister Kirsty Williams confirmed today.

In order to support the reopening an extra £5m in funding has also been allocated for schools to purchase “high-quality face coverings”.

“We’re clear that the ability to relax the current restrictions remains limited by the presence of a new variant, which is more transmissible than before,” said Dr Chris Jones, deputy chief medical officer for Wales.

“However with the R value currently below one, 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.”

It should be noted that the issue of coronavirus transmissibility in children is still hotly debated within the scientific community.

Some studies have found evidence that children are indeed less likely to transmit the virus, and the European Centre for Disease Control endorses this view.

Other studies, however, have found that children transmit the virus at a similar rate adults, and some researchers, such as Dr Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in clinical epidemiology at London’s Queen Mary University, warn of data misinterpretation.

The education minister also announced today that teachers and school staff will receive twice-weekly testing. These will be “lateral flow” tests, however, which are much less reliable than the PCR variety of test.

Gareth Lloyd, Senior Wales Officer for the National Education Union Cymru, said: “We note that the Education Minister has taken the sensible approach, allowing for flexibility for the week following half-term.

“We very much understand that any return to school or college is based on the assumption that the science continues to move in the right direction.

“We believe this flexibility is critical, as education professionals will need time after half-term to help implement any mitigations needed – such as small bubble sizes.

“The extra £5 million to help support schools, colleges, and local authorities to make education safe to return, is welcome.”

The announcements come as the latest Public Health Wales data shows a decrease in community transmission across the country.

The number of people in Wales admitted to hospital with a Covid19 diagnosis is back to the level seen at the beginning of December, which is good news.

Hospital bed occupancy in Wales appears to be returning to safe levels, though Coronavirus patients still make up 56% of occupied critical care beds, and the picture varies between health boards.

For example, all critical care beds at hospitals within Aneurin Bevan health board, which covers Caerphilly and Gwent, are occupied.

Cwm Taff Morgannwg which covers Bridgend and the Rhondda, Hywel Dda in Pembrokeshire and Betsi Cadwaladr in North Wales all report general and acute bed occupancy above the maximum safe level of 85%.

The vaccine roll-out meanwhile, seems to be going well, with the majority of the most at-risk groups having received their first dose.