Primary and secondary schools in Wales will look to use blended learning when older age groups are allowed to return to classrooms, the First Minister has said.
Mark Drakeford said the Welsh Government wanted all pupils back in classrooms as soon as possible but only for “some of the time”, with pupils expected to mix face-to-face teaching with online lessons.
On Friday, it was announced that foundation phase schoolchildren aged between three and seven in Wales will return to classrooms from February 22, along with some older learners on vocational courses.
Following the announcement, Mr Drakeford said getting younger pupils back in schools was the “first step” in resuming face-to-face teaching in the country, with talks due next week on planning a return for older year groups.
He told the PA news agency: “We will want to try and give the profession, the parents especially, as much certainty as we can about what would happen if we were in a position to go further.
“That is not to say that it will mean a return for every child, every day, to the classroom.
“We’re going to have to be probably more flexible than that, and try to combine as much face-to-face teaching as we can manage with continued emphasis on safety and wellbeing.
“It maybe that not every child is in school every day.
“But it shows that every child is in school some of the time.”
Mr Drakeford said unions who had concerns about the welfare of staff returning to classrooms from February 22 had two weeks to work with the Government to address them.
“Where there are issues where there’s further progress we can make to do even more to give people confidence and to make sure things are as safe as they possibly can be, then of course we will go on doing that,” he said.
“We got as far as we could do by today, and in order to give the time that they needed we knew we ha to make an announcement.
“(But) that doesn’t mean the talking is over.”
Earlier, Education Minister Kirsty Williams told the Welsh Government’s press briefing the return was prioritised for the youngest learners because they were the least likely to transmit coronavirus, and had greater difficulty with remote learning.
Ms Williams said children’s education was a “priority”, but that the country was “not yet in a position to be able to see a full return to school for every learner.
“However, thanks to people following our national guidance, there is sufficient headroom for us to bring back some of our learners in a phased, flexible and progressive way,” she said.
Ms Williams added: “As we all know, you only get one childhood, which is exactly why we are all working so hard to support young people back into schools so they can learn with their friends.”
Ms Williams said the public’s adherence to national lockdown rules and guidance had created “sufficient headroom” to allow for the phased return to classrooms for those in Wales’ foundation phase years.
The country’s R number is estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, while its seven-day case rate is 130 cases per 100,000 of the population.
Ms Williams also said the return to face-to-face learning would come alongside “additional measures” to provide staff with an added level of assurance for their safety, including the introduction of twice weekly testing for staff and £5 million to support in safety items such as face coverings.
National Education Union (NEU) Cymru’s senior Wales officer Gareth Lloyd said Ms Williams had taken a “sensible approach” in allowing a flexible return after half term.
Mr Lloyd said: “Our members want a wider return in a safe working environment and we are expecting discussions next week with Welsh Government to ensure robust mitigation measures are put in place.”
Dilwyn Roberts-Young, general secretary of the UCAC teachers union, said: “We welcome the announcement of mitigating measures to further reduce risks, including regular testing for staff and investment in equipment and modifications.
“However, the genuine concerns of teachers in the foundation phase about this return must be acknowledged.”
Laura Doel, director of school leaders union NAHT Cymru, said members were “bitterly disappointed” the decision had been imposed “whilst there are too many questions left unanswered”.