Schools will still return on 29th June but ministers acknowledge support staff fears

Credit: PA

The Welsh Government has insisted that children will begin to return to schools here in Wales on 29th June as planned, but it will not put staff at ‘unacceptable risk’ of catching coronavirus.

It follows a survey by the UNISON union of thousands of support workers who said they were worried about returning to school too early.

Speaking at the Welsh Government’s daily press conference, Health Minister Vaughan Gething said he understood those concerns and would ensure they are met but that it was important to balance the needs of staff and the needs of pupils.

The Welsh Government also insisted that a plan to extend the current term by a week is not compulsory for all schools although it is considered an important part of the phased return.

UNISON gathered the views of 3780 support staff which include teaching assistants, cooks, cleaners, admin workers and caretakers, many of them on low pay and contracted for fewer than 52 weeks a year.

The union said that 72% felt schools should not reopen before September. 78% were worried that social distancing cannot be maintained.

Only 20% said they were confident their school had the staff and resources to ensure health and safety.

UNISON’s Jonathan Lewis said: "The engagement in this survey shows the strength of feeling and concern amongst school support staff. To receive almost 4000 responses in such a short period of time is remarkable and these voices must not be ignored.”

But in a sign of compromise he added that while “UNISON believes schools should return in September… that will not stop us from engaging with Welsh Government, local authorities, and schools to ensure schools are as safe as they can be at this point.”

A major point of contention has been the prospect of extending the current term to July 27th, which was announced by Education Minister Kirsty Williams when she announced three weeks ago that schools would return.

I understand that some support staff felt coerced into agreeing to work that extra week even though many of them aren’t contracted for 52 weeks a year.

Credit: PA

The Welsh Government has today reiterated its ‘strong feeling’ that that extra week is an important part of the phased return but also recognises that some schools won’t be able to staff it. The decision, I’m told, will be one for local authorities and school governors depending on individual schools’ circumstances.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We have proposed that schools open for an extra week in July. We believe that the additional week will be hugely important in helping schools take a phased approach in supporting all children and young people.

“We welcome the dedication shown by local authorities, head teachers, teachers and school support staff across Wales who have responded positively to the announcement, sharing the innovative ways they expect the four weeks to operate in their schools. Alongside the additional week in July, the Minister proposed to extend this autumn’s half-term break by an additional week.

“Of course, we recognise that decisions over term dates are best taken by local authorities and governing bodies, as they are better placed to understand their local circumstances.”

One of the teaching unions has criticised confusion caused by the compromise over extending term time. The general secretary of the school leaders' union, NAHT, said the news was 'disappointing.'

Paul Whiteman added: “Plans for schools to return have been thrown into confusion again as it is now down to each local authority to decide how it intends to proceed.

"In a crisis like this we will not achieve perfection and this should be about exploring the art of the possible in the interest of children. NAHT saw much of the Minister’s plan as a pragmatic attempt to move the situation forward for learners. What matters now is that we quickly identify a consensus that supports education.”