This summer term in Wales will be the most normal since the start of the pandemic, head teachers hope. School visits, leavers’ events, sports days, awards, fairs and shows are running for the first time since 2019.
Schools said they are optimistic the new term starting on Monday will be less restricted and children will be able to do more. New schools advice is expected to be issued early in the new term and the next Welsh Government three-weekly Covid review is on Friday, May 6.
When schools return this week some secondaries are continuing with masks and asking staff pupils to test for Covid before coming back although regular asymptomatic testing for staff and secondary pupils will no longer be required. One-way systems and contact bubbles have largely gone but for now schools will still have to follow the Welsh Government local framework allowing for restrictions to be ramped up or down depending on circumstances and there is still some uncertainty.
As they wait for updated guidance schools and teaching unions also sent a stark warning that there is still a high risk of Covid disruption and it is “not business as usual”. It is only two weeks since the end of the spring term which saw widespread staff and pupil absence across Wales. Entire year groups were sent home to work again amid a shortage of supply cover when staff are off sick.
There are also worries about persistent absence – more than one in 10 pupils are off on average – and exams due to start in May. Heads have warned disruption has been so varied that the first GCSE and A-levels since 2019 will be more unfair than the last two years and one head said the system is “immoral” because it is so unequal.
Teaching union UCAC summed up the mixed feelings saying: “Hopefully with the weather improving there will be more opportunities for schools to plan extra-curricular activities. However only time will tell if the infections will rise or not after the Easter break.”
Karen Brown, head teacher of Millbank Primary in Cardiff, said she is looking forward to a better summer term. She said Covid restrictions have affected children, their learning, and socialising.
But she’ll keep her 254 pupils in three contact bubbles of reception, years one to three, and years four to six until the end of this term. Year sixes will be allowed out of that bubble for the first time in two years to do peer work with younger pupils work and help at lunchtimes.
“We are not so worried about Covid now but there were still plenty of cases last term so we are continuing with good ventilation and hygiene,” said Mrs Brown. “We are looking forward to things like sports days again. Our plan is to invite parents to that and to our first year six leavers service for two years. We started trips last term and years five and six had an amazing time at Storey Arms. We couldn’t do that the last two years.”
Her school PTA has started up again, family engagement is resuming this term, and face-to-face parents’ evenings are back. A summer school PTA fair will be held and transition to high school visits will take place.
“I am really looking forward to next term with less restrictions. The summer term is so lovely and I am really looking forward to being more back to normal. I feel much more confident now. There are still Covid cases but most of our staff have had Covid and Covid vaccines and our parents have been brilliant.”
Mrs Brown said the pandemic has been hard for children, families, and staff. “It’s been really grim at times but we have strengthened relationships with families. Children appreciate being back at school. We have all learned so much and all had families who struggled but I think we are coming out now stronger.”
At Mary Immaculate High in Cardiff there will be no contact bubbles or one-way systems but pupils and staff will still be asked to wear masks in communal areas. All staff and pupils are also being asked to take Covid tests before returning for the new term. The school had stocks left over and gave all staff and pupils a pack of seven tests at the end of last term.
“I will be texting parents and asking pupils to test before they come back,” said head teacher Huw Powell. “We have said to staff: ‘If you test positive or have symptoms don’t come in. .The law may be different but this is about keeping people safe. Some people are saying Covid is gone but it’s still around.”
Mr Powell did not disagree with the end of asymptomatic testing for all staff and secondary school pupils this term though. He said there comes a point when people “get fatigued” and stop doing it anyway.
And he said it was important to try to resume normal school life and activities while keeping Covid out and staff and pupils in. He has told staff he wants classes to get out and about learning and there will be a traditional results day with pupils coming in to pick up their exam grades in August.
“It is about time to think about enrichment,” said Mr Powell. “School trips and visits are important and they have lost so much over the last two years. We are seriously planning overseas trips and our ski trip.
“We are pushing it further and saying we definitely want people out and about. After three years we cannot carry on with no visits and trips. Sports day will be back this year and our awards evening. The drama department will invite parents in for smaller drama events. We are a Catholic school so there will be end of term liturgies bringing in primary school children. As far as I am concerned this term will be as back to normal as possible. We are not far off normal – we are 80% of the way.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “At the beginning of term schools should continue to use the local infection control decision framework as the basis for their operational arrangements. We continue to review the guidance and information available to us and we will write to schools about this after the start of term.
“Staff have worked incredibly hard to provide the best possible educational experience for learners during this time. We have been clear that activities such as school trips should go ahead as long as they have been risk-assessed.”
Kerina Hanson, president of school leaders’ union the National Association of Headteachers Cymru and head of Pennard Primary in Swansea, said: “We remain very concerned about staff and pupil absence as we go into the summer term. Access to supply cover was very limited in the spring term for both teachers and support staff.
“For those taking exams this year staff and pupil absence will undoubtedly have had an impact. Many will have missed out on direct teaching from subject specialists.
“Everyone is keen for our schools to return to normal – indeed many schools have returned to ‘normal’. But we know that Covid and absence will have an ongoing impact on schools and support will be needed from Welsh Government to ensure a sustainable return to business as usual. Many schools are concerned about the impact staff absence will have on school budgets now that the hardship fund has come to an end.”
UCAC said in a statement: “Our main concern for next term is how well-prepared students as well as teachers are for the examinations. It will be a stressful time for all, especially students who will be sitting examinations for the first time. That this is causing anxiety for numerous students..
“Hopefully with the weather improving there will be more opportunities for schools to plan extra-curricular activities. However only time will tell if the infections will rise or not after these Easter break.”
Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said school leaders are optimistic “but the system is holding its breath”. There is still huge concern about persistently high pupil absence and lack of supply cover when staff are off sick. She said: “People hope the warm weather will bring a break from this punishing time and learners will be confident to come back to school again. School leaders are hoping Covid will begin to fade and exams go smoothly but there are still genuine concerns.”
What councils are saying about Covid restrictions in their schools
“Schools’ operational guidance in relation to Covid is still in place with advice and recommended mitigations. Risk assessments are still required and this includes putting appropriate measures in place for exams such as ventilation, hand sanitisation, and spaces between desks. Teachers and pupils with Covid symptoms are asked to stay at home and seek a test. Special schools will continue with their LFD testing regime.”
“Schools will be managing risk as they would any other communicable disease. Schools will continue to ensure hygiene measures are adhered to and all schools have detailed risk assessments in place so remain safe environments for staff and learners.”
“Staff must still self-isolate if they test positive for Covid. There is currently no change in the self-isolation guidance. Any pupil who tests positive for Covid should be asked to not attend school. This is because a Covid-19 infection will be treated like any other communicable disease (e.g. norovirus) and a school can recommend certain measures to protect the health and safety of other pupils and staff. This is not an exclusion but an authorised absence.
“There is no requirement for wearing face masks in a school or setting. Hand sanitiser will continue to be supplied and recommended to be used by staff within workplaces. Hand-washing will remain an effective control measure.
“Health and Safety Executive-required levels of ventilation to be maintained, continued use of carbon dioxide monitors. With regard to risk assessments mainstream schools will treat Covid-19 the same as other notifiable communicable disease. Special schools are still required to have a Covid-19 risk assessment in place for the setting or individual. Local contingency measures may need to be implemented by the school where there is an increase in staff shortages due to current self-isolation requirement.”
“The local authority and school leaders have worked continually to ensure that schools in Blaenau Gwent are as safe as possible for our children and young people and for our hardworking staff. Covid is still with us of course and we are following the latest Welsh Government advice on how we live with this virus going forward. We are hopeful we can now move towards some form of normal and will continue working hard to support our children and young people to recover from the impacts of this pandemic and achieve their full potential.”
“We are unable to provide an answer on the Covid plans for individual schools as each school identify their measures through individual risk assessments. Each school would need to be contacted individually for this information.”
“As from April 25 the risk assessment for schools will be based on the ‘low’ range of the framework. This will need to be kept under review by each individual local authority and by each individual school. If Covid-19 cases increase in a school or particular community the risk level may need to be escalated from the ‘low’ status and additional control measures put in place.”