Many schools in Wales will return almost to pre-pandemic normality in two weeks

By Abbie Wightwick

Schools in Wales have returned with fewer Covid restrictions this term and many will be able to get back to more pre-pandemic normality from September 20.

There will still be restrictions like masks in some parts of the school in place and some councils in Wales are adopting much stricter guidelines but from September 20 many schools are set to adopt much simpler rules.

We asked all 22 local education authorities in Wales last week how their schools will operate. You can read their responses here and there is a wide disparity in how they will operate.

Some schools are keeping to some of last term’s rules until new Welsh Government guidance formally replaces the previous all-Wales regulations in two weeks. Staggered start and end times and contact bubbles have already been ended in most local education authorities.

But masks, contact bubbles and pupils facing to the front are still required in some schools for the start of term.

Schools have been given until September 20 to put the new contingency “framework” in place. The guidance, which some have already adopted, gives schools and councils more local flexibility to make decisions depending on how the virus is acting in their areas, rather than an all-Wales policy on education mitigations as before.

The Welsh Government said this approach "should be adopted as soon as possible after the return to school, and in any case by 20 September 2021".

Schools will now make local decisions carrying out risk assessments and in discussion with their local councils.

The overall Covid risk level for Wales will continue to be determined nationally by Welsh Government under which schools will be told to swing into actions mitigations needed for four scenarios from low to very high. Currently the risk alert level is the lowest at zero with the least restrictions required.

That doesn’t mean schools won’t use some previous restrictions. The new framework says schools should ramp up or down any mitigations needed depending on the local Covid levels.

The Welsh Government has said that “schools will only need to consider putting further measures in place if the local risks differ from the national situation” which is currently alert level zero.

From September 20 the new framework replaces the previous schools opening guidance. Headteachers have been given the first few weeks of term to work towards that, with most already easing most rules.

Unions have expressed concern that the new plans are too vague.

Dilwyn Roberts-Young, UCAC General Secretary said: “Schools are currently implementing arrangements for the new school year, on the basis of risk assessments and decisions made at local authority level – in the context of Wales being at Alert Level Zero.

“What is crucial from UCAC’s point of view is that data about cases and infection rates in schools is collected, analysed and published very regularly.

"This will allow well-informed decisions about the appropriate level of measures to be made swiftly and efficiently. We know what those measures are – we have been using them for the last 18 months. They include face-coverings, contact groups, ventilation, social distancing etc."

These are the new rules for schools in Wales:

Some schools in Wales are asking pupils to continue facing to the front in lessons to avoid Covid infection (Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)

The new "framework" recommendations from the Welsh Government may be varied by schools depending on the level of Covid risk identified during risk assessments and depending on any changes with Covid levels locally.

The document puts the onus on schools saying: "Schools will need to ensure that regular Covid-19 risk assessments continue to be undertaken. The assessment should directly address risks associated with Covid-19, to enable measures to be put in place to control those risks."

School start and end times

Staggered start and end times are no longer required and most schools are understood to have returned to normal pre-pandemic school day times.

Covid testing

The new guidance includes asking secondary and college learners to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests this term.

Contact bubbles

No longer required, but some schools are continuing with them for now .

Self isolation

Since Wales moved to alert level zero on August 7 contacts of confirmed cases of Covid no longer have to isolate if they are asymptomatic and double vaccinated or if they are under the age of 18. That means mass self isolation of pupils will end, but pupils and staff who have symptoms or test positive are told they must continue to isolate immediately.

It is hoped this will end the mass isolation of pupils last year if one person in a year group or class bubble tested positive.

If a pupil, or member of staff, tests positive for Covid this term they must self isolate for 10 days.

They must give details about close contacts at school and elsewhere.

Any named as close contacts will be asked to take a PCR test, but won’t have to self-isolate unless they also test positive.

Masks

No longer recommended in classes in secondary schools although they will be needed on school transport and schools can ask pupils and staff to wear masks in communal areas. It is understood that no secondary schools are requiring masks are worn in classrooms so far this terms .

Social distancing

As with all other mitigations schools can decide on this and it will depend on the school environment, ventilation and size of corridors, rooms and entrances.

One way systems can continue and some schools will not resume large assemblies.

Some schools are asking pupils to face to the front to help avoid infection.

Breakfast/after school clubs and extra curricular activities

These can all run as before the pandemic.

Canteens

Last term not all school canteens were open and serving hot meals.

This term most local education authorities have said canteens will return to normal opening serving hot meals this term. It is understood that most schools will control how many children use them at any one time.

Uniform

Some schools eased their uniform rules during the pandemic. Most schools are understood to be returning to pre-pandemic uniform rules.

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