image captionSchooling has moved to the home for most children since the start of the year
Primary school children could begin a phased return to school just after half-term if Covid rates continue to fall, Wales’ first minister has said.
Ministers have been under pressure to set out plans for a return to face-to-face teaching after weeks of lockdown.
Mark Drakeford said the tough “alert level four” restrictions would remain for another three weeks.
However, from Saturday people will be able to meet one other person from another household to exercise.
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s Friday coronavirus briefing if infections continued to fall the youngest primary school pupils may be able to return from 22 February.
“Our children and young people have had a torrid time, over the last 12 months, they are missing out on education, every week,” he said.
He added he hoped older pupils and college students who had to do vocational examinations could also have a phased return to schools and colleges after half-term.
Mr Drakeford said he wanted “everything to be on the table”, including whether having smaller groups of children in school – or having pupils go in for part-weeks – would be possible.
However, he warned things could still change, adding “things we don’t know about today could emerge, even before half-term”.
What do parents think?
image captionHome-schooling has been “difficult to navigate”, Charlotte Harding says
For mum-of-two Charlotte Harding, from Ferndale, Rhondda Cynon Taf, the possibility of the youngest years returning to school is “positive” news.
She said home-schooling her sons, six-year-old Harrison and eight-year-old Ethan, has been “hard to navigate” and “difficult”.
“My eight-year-old has been emotionally drained, I think it is related to having a lack of routine and structure,” she said.
“It is the fact they aren’t integrating with children their own age, that they are mentally missing out.”
image captionMum-of-two Charlotte Harding says her children are “mentally missing out” from being in school
However, Tasha Hughes, from Neath Port Talbot, who has a six-year-old child, said she did not understand the decision.
“I’m just not understanding, one minute it’s not safe and the next it is but as far as children and teachers are concerned nothing has changed,” she said.
“Why are teachers not getting the vaccine if they are made to open back up? They also have families to protect.”
image captionTasha Hughes said she did not understand the decision for a return to schools, provided cases fall
When do Welsh schools go back?
The first minister told Friday’s briefing he wanted to give “two clear weeks’ notice” about plans for a phased return.
He added that while the situation in Wales was improving, lockdown restrictions must continue for another three weeks “to allow the NHS to recover”.
Wales’ chief medical officer Frank Atherton said on Wednesday the headroom to relax restrictions was “really quite limited”.
The Welsh Government decided to close schools to the majority of pupils as concerns grew about the new variant of coronavirus, which was blamed for the rise in cases seen before Christmas.
Schools remained closed except to vulnerable children, and those whose parents are key workers.
Mr Drakeford said he “understands the anxieties” teaching staff might have in returning back to the classroom.
He told Friday’s briefing the Welsh Government would do everything it could to work with teachers and unions to ensure the workplace was “as safe as it can be” before they return to school.
What’s happening across the UK?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said 8 March was the earliest date schools in England could reopen and that “depends on lots of things going right”.
With regard to a four nations approach to schools reopening, Mr Drakeford said the falling numbers of Covid cases in Wales had allowed him to make the move.
Mr Drakeford told Friday’s briefing there was “unlikely to be much headroom” for further coronavirus restrictions in Wales to be lifted at the time of the next review.
He said: “If things were to continue in the direction they are now, where things are going well, then more headroom may emerge in the month of March.”
Alert level three would allow the reopening of schools, higher education, pubs and hospitality businesses – with rules on alcohol sales and opening times – and non-essential retail, among others.
He told the briefing that his government would not rely on a “crude” single piece of data to decide whether to confirm the plans for schools.
image captionIn February, schools could start to see pupils in the classroom for the first time since before Christmas
Mr Drakeford said a “combination of factors” would be considered before children could begin returning to schools in Wales including the rate of cases per 100,000 people, Covid test positivity rate, hospital numbers and “the mitigation measures that we are able to put in place in schools”.
“The key thing is the trend – those numbers need to continue to fall,” he said.
When asked whether the Welsh Government would prioritise vaccinating teachers and school staff, after the first four priority groups set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) have been vaccinated, he said he would “follow the advice of the JCVI”.
‘No play dates’
Deputy head teacher Rachel Antoniazzi, at Thornhill Primary School in Cardiff, said the announcement was a “welcome return” and parents in Wales would be “breathing a huge sigh of relief”.
image captionOnly children of key workers and vulnerable families are currently in school in Wales
“The bigger concern is that parents take this seriously and that when children return to school, that it’s not like a return to normality, so they don’t begin play dates and sleepovers, thinking it’s normal,” she said.
Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said there were “still too many unknowns” – such as vaccine efficacy and infection rates – to put the 22 February date “firmly in the diary yet”.
Ms Doel added the teaching workforce should also be prioritised for vaccinations.
Eithne Hughes, director of the association of schools, colleges and leaders in Wales (ASCL Cymru), described the plan to allow the youngest school pupils to return as a “sensible first step” as school learning is “so important to their development”.
Sally Holland, the children’s commissioner for Wales, urged ministers to set out the “milestones” needed to be reached before children returned.
On Wednesday, Dr Atherton said the outbreak was “shrinking rather than growing”, but rates were still “way too high”.
However, Mr Drakeford told BBC Radio Wales Breakfast there would be “minor adjustments” to lockdown rules – including bubbles and exercise.
What changes are there to exercise rules?
Mr Drakeford said from Saturday people could meet one other person from another household to exercise in a public outdoor place.
image captionPeople can meet another person from another household to exercise outside from Saturday
He said they would have to leave from “your own front door and return to your own front door”.
The Welsh Government said social distancing must be maintained and children under 11 were allowed to accompany adults.
Mr Drakeford said the change was in response to “messages we’ve heard from women about not feeling safe” when exercising at this time of year.
How are bubbles affected?
Mr Drakeford said changes to rules on bubbles from tomorrow would allow people “to dissolve the bubble they’re in at the moment and reform it with another household, provided there’s a 10-day gap between the two”.
He said “weeks into this some people will have moved, some relationships will have changed.”
Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies has called for a “route map out of lockdown” which included “crucial targets concerning the roll-out of coronavirus jabs, falling numbers of infections and the reopening of schools and businesses”.
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price urged a raft of new measures, including making medical grade masks compulsory for everyone and increasing the level and flexibility of the self-isolation support.
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