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The wider reopening of schools in Wales – your questions answered

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We set out below some answers to the frequently asked questions from members relating to the wider reopening of schools in Wales.  We will continue to add to this document where necessary to provide members with the relevant information as the reopening moves forward.

The current operational guidance, which is the key document to review, can be found here.

Reopening for foundation phase and school attendance 

With the return of foundation phase, I am seeing an increased demand for key worker spaces from families with older siblings. Although they technically meet the criteria, I am struggling with capacity. Am I able to cap the numbers of key worker children?

Yes. While the Welsh Government expects school settings to provide face-to-face learning for children of critical workers through all year groups, settings circumstances and risk assessments will dictate capacity – on that basis if, after a risk assessment, you believe you need to cap the number of children attending, this will be permissible.  We recommend that this step is only taken following a robust risk assessment which highlights the need to impose a cap and that you keep the evidence of the steps you have taken to make this decision.

The Welsh Government’s guidance is clear that there is no automatic right for critical workers’ children to attend the school setting, with guidance stating; ‘Being included on the above list does not mean children of all workers in these categories can or will be able to continue to send their children to school.’

I have several parents who do not wish to send their children back to school because they are worried. Do they have to return? Do I have to continue to support them with distance learning if they don’t?

School attendance is compulsory but the Welsh Government recognises some families will have greater anxiety about children’s attendance at school around the risks of covid-19. 

The picture on whether or not remote learning should continue for those learners is very unclear and we will continue to try to seek further clarity in this area for you from the Welsh Government. Unfortunately, as the picture is so unclear, we recommend working with your local authority to agree on an approach to this, although we note that the general principle here will be that the children should not lose out due to the actions of parents and as such remote learning may have to continue. If your local authority is ‘backing’ a particular course of action, it is difficult to see how individual schools could be criticised.

While the Welsh Government expects parents to discuss any concerns they have with the school to secure a full return at the earliest opportunity, if a child does not return to school, it is the Welsh Government’s view that it would not be appropriate for a local authority or school to issue a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) under the current circumstances.

The Welsh Government says we should look to start phasing foundation phase back in from 22 February, I do not have enough information to make that decision until the start of that week, can I wait before informing parents?

The Welsh Government’s guidance indicates that during the week beginning Monday 22 February, there will be a flexible return to school for children in the Foundation Phase year groups. However, each school setting must consider the needs of its community and updated risk assessments. The ultimate decision will be made by individual governing bodies on when schools can open, not the Welsh Government.  We advise that schools communicate any reopening decisions as clearly as possible with parents to avoid any confusion; however, where you don’t feel able to communicate this decision in advance, you may wish to consider providing parents with information about when you expect to be able to make this decision and when you will be in a position to inform them.

The Welsh Government’s Operational Guidance is a useful tool in allowing settings to prepare for a safe return.  These can be viewed here.

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Distance learning, curriculum provision and assessment  

I would like to revert to distance learning for half a day a week or a day a fortnight to allow teachers’ planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. Do I have the ability to make that decision?

PPA time must take place during the period in which pupils are normally taught and this is a statutory requirement. We have had extensive conversations with the Welsh Government concerning the safest way to allow this requirement to take place and officials have indicated that they would expect a closure of settings for PPA to be the last resort. However, they accept that each setting must have the flexibility to make its own local decision. On that basis, we encourage you to look to your local authority concerning the approach to take here. If they will support your decision, you are clearly on much firmer ground. We would also recommend your local authority provides support with communications to parents.

It is also worth noting when considering this issue, that the Welsh Government’s guidance on face-to-face learning for vulnerable and key worker children has not changed, and settings would therefore be expected to remain open for this purpose. 

If I have to close a bubble/s again, do I have to provide distance learning during this time? 

No student should be disadvantaged unfairly and if a class (or bubble) needs to self-isolate or close then the setting will be expected to provide blended learning to those pupils who are unable to attend the school setting. 

What will the general expectations be around curriculum provision? Assessment and accountability (pupil reports, consortia engagement, performance management, etc)?

The Welsh Government’s guidance has been developed to set out expectations and priorities for learning in schools and settings. Schools require a common set of priorities for learning throughout the response to covid-19 and as we now move to recovery.  

Settings are operating in unprecedented and highly challenging circumstances and schools have demonstrated again the capacity of the profession to rise-up and meet these significant challenges. 

These challenges require schools to adapt their curriculum planning to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances and to enable learners to make progress. The Welsh Government’s guidance on expectations and priorities for learning in schools and settings can be found here.

In summary, learners should make meaningful progress throughout this period. Learning should be designed to support increasing depth and sophistication over time. Assessment should be focused to help learners move to the next steps in their learning.

We must be mindful that learners continue to learn in different contexts and, as such, assessment should not be about ‘testing’ in an attempt to ‘catch-up’ and cover everything they would have done before the covid-19 outbreak. A holistic picture of the learner identifying their strengths, how they learn and areas for development should be considered to enable them to be ready to learn and to agree on their next steps. Assessment is an integral part of the learning process, with settings working with learners to help identify strengths, areas for development and next steps in learning.

What is the latest on GCSEs, AS and A levels and where can I find out what is expected of my setting?

In light of the continuation of remote learning, proposals around examinations this year were examined by the Welsh Government and revised details are now as follows:

Learners undertaking GCSE, AS and A levels approved by Qualifications Wales will have their qualifications awarded through a centre-determined grade model – this means grades will be determined by their school or college based on an assessment of the learner’s work. 

Schools will be able to use a range of evidence to determine the grades to be awarded to their learners, including non-examination assessment elements, mock-exams, and classwork. In addition, the WJEC will offer a set of adapted past papers which can enable schools to continue to assess learning within their teaching plans, providing extra support for teachers and learners.

Qualifications Wales will work with WJEC, supported by the Design and Delivery Advisory Group (DDAG), to provide an assessment framework to support schools and colleges in developing their assessment plans, which should demonstrate sufficient coverage of key concepts to allow learners to progress, and detail for how the centre has determined a learner’s grade. These assessment plans will be quality assured by WJEC.

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Testing, vaccinations and face coverings 

The Welsh Government has said that mainstream staff who provide intimate care can receive a vaccination, however, I have a few staff who provide intimate care, but it is not in their job description (JD). Staff are challenging me for not putting them forward, where do I stand with this? I am working on the advice provided by the local authority which says ‘providing intimate care’ must be in their JD to qualify for a vaccine.

The Welsh Government’s guidance indicates that school staff, working in special or mainstream schools whose role is to provide intimate personal care for vulnerable children with complex medical needs, will be included as part of the priority list in the vaccine roll-out. Unfortunately, the guidance is confusing and NAHT has recently been made aware that information received by Health Boards across Wales, who are ultimately responsible for the roll-out of vaccines, is being misinterpreted. We continue to push for clarity in this.

Regarding the intimate care role and whether it is included in an individual’s job description, this should not be a barrier to staff receiving the vaccination. School settings should provide a list of all staff who undertake intimate care to their local authority, who will then relay this to the Health Board who will determine an individual’s priority.

I work in a special school; will I receive the vaccination?

The Welsh Government announced on January 8 that school staff working in special or pupil referral units (PRUs) and mainstream schools, whose role is to provide intimate personal care to vulnerable children with complex medical needs will be included as part of the priority list, along with social care workers in the vaccine roll-out.

However, throughout Wales, we have seen a disparity in the role-out of the vaccine to this group of staff, as well as no clear definition of ‘intimate care’. As a result, we would encourage any special school or PRU settings that have not yet received dates for the vaccination of staff to contact their local authority requesting urgent support.

NAHT Cymru has written to the health minister requesting urgent reassurances on the vaccination roll-out to these settings. 

Can I make my staff wear masks? What if a staff member refuses or tells me that they are exempt from wearing a mask?

There are various legal issues connected to requiring staff members to wear a mask. While it is possible to request all staff to wear a mask, where this request is refused it will be extremely important to liaise with the local authority and also your HR advisers, about any steps you might take in connection to this refusal.  Do not attempt to tackle this issue without the support of the LA and HR who can guide you through the appropriate approach to take, as this will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

There are some circumstances where a staff member may not be able to wear a face covering and a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering will not always be obvious. Schools will need to be mindful and respectful of such circumstances, noting that some people may be less able to wear face coverings and the reasons for this may not be visible to others, for example, people with autism.

Do face coverings have to be worn outside in school playgrounds?

Face coverings do not need to be worn outside in primary or special schools but must be worn in all areas within secondary settings, according to the Welsh Government’s guidance. However, some primary or special schools are looking to build-in this measure into their risk assessments and if staff wish to wear face coverings outside then they are free to do so.

All school staff are being offered twice-weekly testing as part of additional mitigation measures being put in place, what do I do if staff refuse to take the test? 

The lateral flow device (LFD) test confirms if an individual is infectious with covid-19 to other people, and staff should be strongly encouraged to take up the offer to further reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission. However, testing is voluntary and staff can refuse to take the test.

Staff who decline to participate in the testing offer are still able to attend the workplace. Staff who decline to participate in this testing programme should follow the usual national guidelines on self-isolation and should get tested via regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) if they show symptoms.

Some staff have been vaccinated, should they still take the LFD test?

Yes. Current scientific advice is that vaccinated individuals should still take part. This will be kept under review and any changes will be communicated through the schools’ and settings’ leads. 

Some school staff who have shielding have now been vaccinated; can they now attend work? 

No, shielding advice has not changed and even with the added protection the vaccine brings, clinically vulnerable individuals should not attend the workplace. 

We have received an email to say that the delivery of lateral flow device tests (LFD) will be delayed. I understand that the operational guidance states the LFD is part of the control measures for reopening, so can we consider delaying reopening our school until we have received and distributed tests to staff?

The LFT is only one of a range of mitigations; if your setting has not yet received the tests then we would suggest speaking to your health and safety lead at the local authority to seek their view on this matter. 

As the tests are to be used twice weekly, we would not envisage a slight delay in the delivery a circumstance to close a setting, however, this would be a matter for the governors to decide while considering the settings risk assessment.   

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Risk assessments, social distancing, shielding and class bubbles 

I have carried out a revised risk assessment with my governing body and we feel it is not safe to keep the school open. Are we able to close?

Yes. NAHT has recently received confirmation of the following from the Welsh Government, ‘Providing that there has been compliance with public law principles, and providing that there are no directions to the contrary, it is the view of the Welsh Ministers that governing bodies may cause the premises of a school to be closed to pupils.   We would expect school governing bodies (including head teachers) to work with the maintaining local authority in deciding whether, or not, to close the premises of a school.’ 

Any decision to close a setting due to the levels of risk is for the governing body. Where a decision like this is made, we recommend documenting and keeping, for your records, a note of the steps you have taken to come to this decision. 

Our local authority is pressuring schools to remain open, can they do this? 

The decision to close a school setting lies with the governing body. While we encourage settings to work with local authorities to examine risk assessments and any mitigating measures, the local authority should not dictate whether or not settings should remain open, where the governors (including the head teacher) believe, following a robust risk assessment and consideration of alternatives, that it is unsafe to do so. If this occurs, contact NAHT immediately for support.

The Welsh Government’s operational guidance clearly states that class bubbles should be kept as small as possible and should not where possible allow staff to move between bubbles. I cannot do this, despite my best efforts.  Does this leave me in a vulnerable position?

Staff responsible for younger learners should remain with set contact groups. According to the Welsh Government’s guidance, only under exceptional circumstances should staff interchange between different groups. Therefore, settings should take all reasonable measures to keep staff within one bubble and minimise staff movement between bubbles. Schools should not permit routine movement between bubbles which undermines other safety measures.

In summary, this is a very difficult issue. As a general principle, moving staff should be avoided where possible, however, there is an ability to do this in exceptional circumstances under the guidance. Frustratingly, there is no clear definition of what ‘exceptional circumstances’ are so this would need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Where it isn’t possible, then we would recommend undertaking a risk assessment to see if it is possible to operate the school safely in this context. If it isn’t possible to operate safely following a risk assessment then certain steps can be considered, such as capping the number of pupils, or a closure of the bubble. Again, given the impact of this issue, we recommend seeking the local authority’s input in this area, to ensure you will be supported in the steps you have taken. We would recommend doing this in advance of an issue occurring. Approaching the local authority to ask for their view on the steps that should be taken in these circumstances will allow you to have a clear plan of action if this arises.

Some parents are gathering at the school gate; while but this is not technically on the school grounds, other parents have complained to me about it. What can I do?

The Welsh Government’s advice is clear in that everyone needs to follow social distancing rules. The responsibility of this, however, should not lie with the school setting. In such instances, we would suggest that schools seek support from local authorities on reinforcing national restrictions on parents and carers. It should not be the responsibility of schools to police this.

My local authority has advised me that if I know families are not adhering to the covid restrictions outside school I can refuse them entry for ten days, can I?

The Welsh Government’s advice is clear in that everyone within our communities needs to follow social distancing rules. The responsibility of monitoring this does not lie with the school setting and as such the school is unable to refuse a child face-to-face learning, due to suspicions around child’s or their family’s activities outside of school.

Notwithstanding the above, members can also speak to their local authority about this to see what interventions can take place (if any) with the relevant parents. Taking any action concerning things that take place outside school premises is fraught with difficulty and as such we recommend members speak to their local authority to get appropriate advice on the steps they should and shouldn’t take if this issue is a real concern.  

I don't have the physical space in KS2 to maintain the necessary social distancing specified in my risk assessment. What should I do?

The overarching principle to apply in any school and setting is reducing the number of contacts between children and staff, as well as between staff and keeping contact groups separate. The Welsh Government’s guidance indicates that settings can utilise additional or temporary structures for education purposes and we would encourage settings to examine the practicalities of this while considering physical space.

This guidance indicates that any additional space available where there are lower numbers of learners attending should be used, wherever possible, to maximise the distance between learners and between staff and other people. Schools can make small adaptations to the classroom to support distancing where possible and this should include seating learners side-by-side and facing forwards, rather than face-to-face or side-on, and might include moving unnecessary furniture out of classrooms to make more space.

If, after consideration is given to the above, physical space is still inappropriate and therefore the setting is unable to operate safely and in-line with the setting’s risk assessment, then the governing body must decide if the setting is indeed safe to operate. Any closure of the setting must be dictated by the risk assessment.  

I have a member of staff who declares themself as "shielding". How do I manage this (checks, etc) and for how long?

The Shielding Patient List has been maintained by the Welsh Government and those on the Shielding Patient List were written to with advice on how to keep safe. Therefore, everyone on the shielding list will be in possession of a letter. A version of the letter can be viewed here. If a member of staff is unwilling to provide you with a copy of this letter, then we recommend speaking to your HR advisers about what steps to take. For example, they may recommend a referral to occupational health for the member of staff or support you in requiring evidence of their shielding status. This is an area that should be considered by the HR team to ensure all staff are treated fairly and in accordance with disability discrimination legislation so please seek their advice and follow their recommendation.

I have a learner who lives with someone on the shielding list who is classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, should they attend the school setting?

The Welsh Government’s guidance states that learners and staff who are not clinically extremely vulnerable but live within the same household as someone who is can continue to attend work or school.  

A child has developed symptoms whilst at school, should everyone in that bubble now isolate?

Any learner or member of staff who has been in contact with someone with symptoms, does not need to go home to self-isolate, unless: the symptomatic person subsequently tests positive, they develop symptoms themselves (in which case, they should commence self-isolation immediately and arrange to have a test), they are requested to do so by Test, Trace and Protect (TTP).  

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Other resources 

The education minister’s full statement is available here.

A letter to learners from Qualifications Wales is available here.

Further detail is available via the following links:

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First published 19 February 2021