Councils in talks to end school term early for Christmas

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Some councils have confirmed they are considering closing schools early for Christmas to help cut the risk of spreading coronavirus and people having to self isolate over the festive period.

Others say they have no plans to shut early, so what happens to the end of term will vary across Wales depending on local decisions.

Options being looked at vary from from closing one week early on December 11 to shutting two or three days early.

Discussions about what date schools will go back after Christmas are also understood to be taking place. “Everything is under review,” said one council leader.

Unions have already called for schools to be shut on December 11, one week ahead of the planned end of term date of December 18.

First Minister Mark Drakeford has made clear he wants schools to stay open but councils have been in talks over the last few days with Welsh Government, headteachers and the Welsh Local Government Association about moving all teaching online.

One headteacher, who did not want to be named, but who supports schools staying open for face to face classes, said parents might just vote with their feet anyway and keep their children at home. At least moving lessons online would mean they got some education.

“I have mixed feelings to be honest. Many of my parents have asked if they can keep children home that last week so it’s complicated.”

The decision about whether to shut schools and return to remote learning rest with councils in practice.

Although the Welsh Government could, in theory, veto early school closures it would have to do this by stepping in to remove a local education authority’s powers, as it does when they are put in special measures. That is a last resort step and highly unlikely to happen. It did not step in when Ceredigion Council shut schools last week after a number of coronavirus cases there.

Councillor Andrew Morgan, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, said children need to be in school but is in favour of shutting schools in his local authority two or three days early. He would like too see a national decision for the end of term and the start of next term.

“Closing schools early will be harmful to children’s education and safeguarding so we don’t want to close a full week early, but if we keep everyone in schools until 3pm on Friday that also puts a strain on track and trace if there are cases.

“We having conversations with the Welsh Government, but in terms of closing schools a week early, I would not be in favour of that.”

Looking ahead to next term he added: “There are discussions about what post-Christmas looks like but I can’t go into detail as post-Christmas depends on what happens and whether there is a significant increase in cases across the UK and whether there is an intervention. Everything is being reviewed.”

Sue Walker, education director of Merthyr Council said parents need clarity soon.

“We are having meetings with the Welsh Local Government Association. We have got to let parents know if our schools are closing early. There is a lot of concern,” she said.

“We are talking to headteachers about this. Some are for and some against closing early.”

Cllr Rob James, leader of the Labour opposition group on Carmarthenshire Council, said no decision has been reached but confirmed shutting schools early is also under discussion in his local authority.

“It is a complex issue and I will seek to work with officers of the administration to ensure that any action in this area ensures access to learning for all and takes into consideration caring responsibilities,” he said.

The views from councils around Wales:

Carmarthenshire Council said: “We are in regular dialogue with Welsh Government and will make decisions based on consideration of all information available.”

Ceredigion, Conwy, Caerphilly and Bridgend councils all said they were waiting for guidance from Welsh Government in relation to the end of the school term.

Cardiff Council said “(early) closure would be down to a Welsh Government decision.”

Powys County Council said it has no plans to close schools early for Christmas unless schools are unable to deliver the curriculum effectively due to the numbers of teachers and pupils self-isolating or testing positive for Covid.

Pembrokeshire Council said: “Our final day of term is the 18th of December. We are discussing the final week of term and how that should look. We have not made any decisions to end the term early at this stage.”

Monmouthshire Council said “At this stage, there is no plan to end face to face term early.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford has already said it is not his intention that schools shut early and that keeping them open has been a priority through the pandemic.

The Welsh Government added in a statement: “We have had regular dialogue with local authorities and unions throughout the pandemic and these discussions continue. Our priority remains ensuring that all children and young people’s education continues with as little disruption as possible.”

End school early, say unions

Dilwyn Roberts-Young, general secretary of teaching union UCAC has written to education Minister Kirsty Williams calling for schools to shut on December 11.

“The fact that pupils and students will continue to attend an educational setting a week before Christmas Day is raising serious concerns for our members,” his letter said.

“If a pupil/student tested positive with Covid-19 during the last week of term, it would mean that the whole bubble would have to self-isolate, preventing them from joining their extended family for Christmas. The same could be true for the education workforce.

“In addition, Test, Trace and Protect could continue to contact school and colleges leaders on Christmas Day, which is totally unacceptable.”

Neil Butler, Nasuwt national official for Wales said teachers would continue to work providing distance learning.

“Nasuwt supports the implementation of a firebreak before Christmas. This would be to protect education workers, learners and their families in that crucial week to ensure that they would not have to self isolate over Christmas,” he said.

“It is important to understand that this would be a Firebreak and not an extra weeks holiday. Teachers would continue to work hard to ensure distance learning in that week.”

Eithne Hughes, Director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru said school leaders should be given flexibility to move to remote learning during the final week of term; based on their judgement of local circumstances.

“Many of them will be facing a situation in which Covid protocols mean they might have to tell large numbers of pupils and staff to self-isolate over Christmas and this will have significant implications for families,” she said.

“They need to be able to make decisions in the best interests of their school community, and they are best placed to make that judgement because it is they who have the best knowledge of the precise set of circumstances.”



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