A teachers’ union wants to know if shutting schools early before Christmas did anything to bring down the Covid-19 transmission rate in Wales.
The Association of School and College Leaders Cymru (ASCLC) also called for quick action on plans for schooling if cases continued to rise in Wales with a new strain of the virus circulating.
Children are set to return to school in January on a staggered basis.
The Welsh Government said it was closely monitoring transmission rates.
Before Christmas, scientific advice suggested families with children should consider “pre-isolating” at home for 10 days before seeing elderly relatives.
If anyone, anywhere has any thought that schools are safe tell that to my staff who are so ill at the moment and caught it IN SCHOOL. It’s time @fmwales @WG_Education started thinking of the school staff as well as the pupils. @NAHTnews @CymruNAHT
— Chris Britten (@Chris1Britten) December 17, 2020
The advice was contained in a report by the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG).
All secondary schools and colleges shut a week early but some counties kept primary schools open until 18 December.
As of 23 December, the R number had increased again to between 1 and 1.3 in Wales, with an estimate from Public Health Wales of 1.2 based on case rates.
This means for every 10 people with the virus, 12 more people would be infected.
‘Clear communication needed’
“We closed for a week at the end of last term to try to get the R rate down,” said Eithne Hughes, director of the ASCLC.
“Have things changed significantly as a consequence of schools closing?”
Ms Hughes said there needed to be very clear communication if there was any change of plan on schools returning.
“We need to know extremely quickly in order that parents and schools know exactly where they are in a very short space of time,” she added.
‘It keeps you awake at night’
Chris Britten is head of Ysgol Y Deri Special School in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, which has had over 60 positive Covid results since November.
He said: “It keeps you awake at night…
“We’ve had a lot of staff who are very ill and remain ill.
“When I get a member of staff in intensive care you do sort of think ‘maybe we should have done more, maybe we should have done something different’ – but that way kind of lies madness really, we do everything we can.”
He wants to see school workers prioritised for vaccines, more regular testing in schools and for any changes to plans for children to return in January to be communicated as soon as possible.
He added: “There’s not a head teacher that doesn’t want all the kids in school but I would just like people to note that there are 300 adults in our school in a relatively confined space, working together – they can’t socially distance from themselves or the kids because of the nature of the work.”
‘I didn’t see a spike’
Headteacher of Eastern High School in Cardiff Armando Di-Finizio said he was concerned about pupils’ wellbeing and academic progress and wanted to see schools open in January as planned.
He told BBC Radio Wales: “I’d be interested to know what the safety issues are with children because when I look at the ONS data, children seem to be completely safe and there’s no conclusive evidence either way that they’re actually spreading it to adults.
“I know that might sound terrible me saying that but I’ve not had any conclusive data…
“I didn’t see a spike when schools first went back and teachers are in classes with 30 pupils every day – surely it would be a lot more cases through pupils to pass it to staff or pupils to pupils but that doesn’t doesn’t seem to be happening on a grand scale.”
What about the new variant?
Scientists are urgently investigating hints the new variant of coronavirus spreads more easily in children and say if proven, this could account for “a significant proportion” of the increase in transmission.
The claim comes from members of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (Nervtag).
Children almost universally shrug off the virus, but the variant could alter the role they, and schools, play in spreading the virus.
Earlier strains of coronavirus found it harder to infect children than adults.
‘Taken its toll’
Clare Ferguson Walker, a mother of two from Tavernspite in Pembrokeshire, is also keen for children to return as planned.
She said: “I’ll be absolutely honest with you, it is starting to become a complete nightmare home educating the kids.
“At first it almost felt like a kind of novelty and we were managing fine – it was almost like an extended sort of summer holiday period – but it has massively taken its toll on the kids’ mental health, on my mental health.
“It’s becoming incredibly difficult and I think we are starting to have to ask the question now of the balance between physical safety and actually the mental wellbeing of our kids and the impact of that on families.”
The Welsh Government said coronavirus cases “remain very high in Wales”.
A spokeswoman added: “We are closely monitoring the impact of the decisions we have taken to protect people’s health, including the move to alert level four and the decision to provide online learning for the final week of term for secondary school and college students.
“Whilst there are encouraging signs that the package of measures introduced in the weeks before Christmas may have had an impact, this is not the case in every area of Wales.
“We would want to see a sustained trend before starting to draw conclusions.”