We echo their call for Welsh Government to lead on a far more cautious approach to this matter, including moving all schools to home learning for most children, so that only pupils who are vulnerable or the children of key workers return to school while the role of children in transmitting the new coronavirus variant continues to be investigated.
Our concerns relate to the welfare of school staff, but also the wider role that schools play in community transmission. We note from the TAC advice from 23 December that schools were identified as one of two settings where “high numbers of incidents continue to be reported,” and that the TAC has also recognised the role of school closures in having an impact on the R rate.
The decision on how all pupils can then return to school once the necessary evidence is available should then be taken in social partnership, at a national level, so that the approach is consistent with the nationwide Level 4 status and there is a clear standard in terms of any operational changes that need to be introduced.
We cannot rush into a reopening if it will put people at risk and does not provide enough time to effectively introduce policy. Reopening schools before all the evidence is available will undermine confidence in the safety of schools and places a wholly unrealistic burden on the education workforce. Evidence of the new variant and the virus more generally could result in new infection control advice which will need to be incorporated into guidance and risk assessments.
There have also been other changes to public health policy and advice such as proposals to introduce Lateral Flow Device testing in schools and the recommendation that those who cannot work from home should not attend the workplace, and concerns raised by unions need to be addressed before schools fully reopen. Unions that represent workers in the sector are especially concerned that pregnant workers may be disadvantaged and have issued a call for the guidance to not discriminate against them.
While we understand a reassessment of school reopening plans could have a significant impact on those whose children have a delayed return to school, we would urge Welsh Government to effectively communicate to employers that workers are eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in these circumstances, so they could either be partially or fully furloughed if they are unable to work. Self-employed workers in this situation should be directed to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.