Youngest pupils make return to classrooms across Wales

Claire Hayhurst, PA

The youngest pupils across Wales have begun returning to the classroom in the first step towards reopening schools in the country.

Most children have not experienced face-to-face teaching since December, when classes were switched online due to a steep rise in coronavirus cases.

Children aged between three and seven started a phased return to school from Monday.

Some vocational learners, including apprentices, were also back at college to access training or workplace environments for their practical qualifications.

All primary school pupils, as well as older age groups in years 11 and 13 who have exams, could return from March 15 if the country’s public health situation continues to improve.

The coronavirus incidence rate in Wales is currently 83 cases per 100,000 people – the lowest of the four UK nations.

Education Minister Kirsty Williams is due to attend the Welsh Government press conference with Dr Chris Jones, deputy chief medical officer for Wales, on Monday.

Speaking on Sunday, Ms Williams told BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme: “If the public health situation continues to develop as it has been doing since the lockdown in December, then I am as confident as I can be that we will be able to return more children to face-to-face learning on March 15.

“Please don’t misinterpret this as a sign that things can go back to normal.

“Schools are highly-regulated settings, school staff are working really hard to make them as Covid secure as they can be.

“But it is behaviour around school, on the journey to school, at the school gate, on your way home and at the weekend, that will help us keep the public health situation improving which will allow more children to go back.”

Ms Williams said the return of secondary school pupils to face-to-face learning was more complicated due to the risk of transmission of coronavirus.

She told the BBC that the Welsh Government’s priority would be to use “whatever headroom we have” on face-to-face learning for years 11 and 13.

Many headteachers are also keen to bring year 10 and 12 students back into classrooms too.

“But we might have to do that on a routine basis, allowing us to cut the number of children in the class down, helping to keep those schools as Covid-secure as possible,” Ms Williams added.

Wales entered Level 4 restrictions, a national lockdown, on December 20.

On Friday, First Minister Mark Drakeford said he hoped stay-at-home measures could be eased in Wales as early as in three weeks, due to falling numbers of cases and reduced pressures on hospitals.

On Sunday, a further 336 cases of coronavirus were reported in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 201,688.

Public Health Wales reported another 16 deaths, taking the total in the country since the start of the pandemic to 5,237.

The agency said 860,083 people had now received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 37,773 second doses had also been given.

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