Schools in Wales: What parents and teachers can expect as pupils return to the classroom

Staggered start times and classroom bubbles are some of the measures that could be reintroduced as schools prepare to return Credit: PA

Pupils will return to classrooms in Wales this month amid what are being described as “very high-risk levels”.

Schools are being asked to consider how they will operate with staff absences due to coronavirus of up to 50% and have been given two planning days at the start of term to prepare for possible remote working.

Individual schools and councils are tasked with making risk assessments depending on local circumstances, meaning there is not a blanket all-Wales approach.

With many pupils just days away from returning to the classroom and Covid rates in Wales at their highest since the start of the pandemic over the last month, here’s what pupils and parents can expect as schools return.

Q&A: What to expect in Welsh schools in 2022

When will pupils return?

All schools are using the first two days immediately following the Christmas and new year break as their planning days. Term dates vary across Wales, so these two days will not be the same for all schools.

Each local authority will confirm with schools which dates have been assigned as planning days. 

All learners will return to on site provision by Monday, January 10 at the latest, although many will have returned before then.

Before Christmas, Powys Council announced pupils will only return remotely from January 7, and will only return to classrooms in person from January 10, if it is safe.

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Will pupils have to wear masks?

The Welsh Government changed its guidance regarding face coverings on November 29, 2021.

Face coverings should be worn by staff and visitors in all indoor areas of all school settings, including classrooms, where physical distance cannot be maintained. 

Pupils in secondary schools will also be required to wear face coverings in all indoor areas where physical distance cannot be maintained.

Face coverings should also be worn by secondary-aged learners on school transport.

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Will pupils be taught in bubbles?

As risk assessments and mitigating action fall under the responsibility of schools and councils, each local authority and each school will have different measures in place. 

Contact bubbles and staggered start and end times will return to some schools, while some pupils will start lessons online.

Some councils have confirmed that pupils in their schools will return to contact groups, or 'bubbles', in January.

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Will pupils be tested for Covid?

Schools have been told to ensure they have a supply of Lateral Flow Covid test kits for staff and pupils.

The government has told all staff and secondary pupils that they should test three times a week before entering school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, any staff member or pupil with symptoms of coronavirus will be required to isolate and take a PCR test.

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What happens when there is a Covid case in a classroom?

Headteachers in primary and special schools have been given template letters to send parents in the event of cases being identified in classrooms.

The letters inform parents of the confirmed cases but tell parents their child should continue to attend school unless displaying symptoms.

It also asks parents to be extra vigilant of children displaying symptoms of Covid.

In the instance of multiple cases being identified, children will still be allowed to attend school provided they remain well and asymptomatic.

As soon as any child starts to display any symptoms, they should isolate and arrange a PCR test immediately.

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What happens if there is a Covid case within a household?

All over-18s who are fully vaccinated and children aged five to 17 are now asked to take lateral flow tests every day for seven days if they are identified as a contact of a positive case.

Each child in a household where there is a positive case should take a test before they arrive at school each day, however, they do not need to self-isolate for that day unless they have a positive lateral flow test or develop symptoms.

Children under five are not required to self-isolate or test as contacts. However, if they have symptoms, they should not attend school or childcare until their symptoms have resolved.

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What are headteachers and education unions saying?

NASUWT is urging the Welsh Government to reduce the risk of Covid transmission by introducing government-funded air-cleaning units and improving financial support to cover for Covid-related absence.

Neil Butler, NASUWT national official for Wales, said: “Teachers, pupils and students, and parents will be concerned about the potential risk of further disruption to schools caused by the Omicron variant.

“The Welsh Government must do everything it can to prevent schools from experiencing significant staffing problems next term and further damage to the education of children and young people.”

Laura Doel,director of NAHT Cymru said: “School leaders are doing all they can to ensure they can reopen their doors to learners over the next few days.

"Teams are going to extraordinary lengths to operationalise new arrangements over the next few days but for these arrangements to work, they must be supported.

“It is vital that schools all have a supply of LFT kits before the term starts, if the new guidance is predicated on this approach, we cannot be let down by supply and distribution issues.  We know that some schools are waiting for deliveries and of course that is a concern.

"However, the reality is that it is too soon to tell whether the new mitigations, including the much-welcomed return of staggered session times, will be enough.

“Given the incredibly challenging circumstances our schools are operating in, we urge the Welsh Government to ease additional pressures on schools – like the reintroduction of inspections and plans to reform the school day/year, and allow schools to focus on their core purpose of teaching and learning.”

David Evans, Wales secretary for the National Education Union Cymru, said: "The return to school will be a difficult time for everyone, as there are still uncertainties around the Omicron variant.

"There is never enough time to prepare for the return to school. But, it is important that schools use the extra time to prepare for the new mitigation measures, such as staggered start times and as much physical distancing as possible."The new mitigation measures should help protect staff and students alike. This will be another difficult term, as we expect many in education to have time off caused by covid. Some schools may have to move to online learning."Whilst we want to see minimal disruption to education, it is important that action is taken to keep staff and students as safe as possible.

"We are interested to see that some filtration systems have been bought for schools in England struggling with ventilation, and would expect this to be easily available to schools in Wales too."

What is the Welsh Government saying?

Welsh Education Minister, Jeremy Miles

A spokesperson for the Welsh Government said: “We are doing everything we can to protect schools from the impact of the Omicron variant and minimise disruption to learners.

“We continue to keep the situation under review as new evidence and information becomes available and are working closely with our key partners, including trade unions and local authorities. 

“All staff and secondary age learners are strongly encouraged to test three times a week and schools can order tests direct on a weekly basis.

“Schools are also able to access the Hardship Fund via their local authorities to cover the costs of a range of Covid related issues, including cover for staff absences.”

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