WALES’s Education Minister, Jeremy Miles MS this week announced that schools and local authorities will be free to set their own policy on mask-wearing in the nation’s classrooms.

In a written statement, Mr Miles said: “if the evidence supports it, we will confirm at the next three-week review point on 10 February that schools should return to making local decisions on mitigations in line with the Local Infection Control Decision Framework by the beginning of the new half term on February 28. 

“Face coverings will remain in schools for the time being, just as they are required in most public places, at alert level 0.

“In preparation, schools should work with their local authorities and public health advisors to determine the measures they may need to put in place, based on their local circumstances.”

Mr Miles also announced a return to a normal timetable in all educational settings in Wales after the February Half Term.

On examinations, the Education Minister said they would go ahead as scheduled “unless the public health situation makes it impossible for them to physically run”. 

He added: “The intention to adjust grade boundaries to reflect disruption has already been set out.

“Adaptations to exam content have been put in place as well as prior notification of areas of examination”.

CAUTIOUS WELCOME FROM TEACHING UNIONS

Laura Doel, Director of NAHT Cymru said: “When national restrictions were relaxed last summer and schools returned in September to little or no mitigations in place, we saw immediate and prolonged disruption. Staff and pupil absence really affected the delivery of education.

“While there is reason to be hopeful now that case rates are dropping nationally, we have urged the Welsh Government not to relax too many mitigations in schools too soon and proceed with cautious optimism.

“The Education Minister’s statement today reinforces the need for a slow and steady approach, and we will work with government officials to ensure schools have clear guidance in place once mitigations begin to lift.

“If high levels of disruption continue in our schools and the relaxation of any mitigations compounds the problem, we will be the first to call on the government to move swiftly to rethink the approach.

“No-one wants to see mitigations in schools, but the priority must be to keep schools open as safely as possible for staff and learners.”

David Evans, Wales Secretary of the National Education Union Cymru, said: “NEU Cymru members will be pleased to hear that the Minister has taken the sensible step of keeping face coverings in place for secondary school children, in line with everyone still wearing them in busy places in Wales.

“We know it has been a challenging time for everyone in education; however, keeping staff and students safe with minimal disruption must be the priority. Ventilation is absolutely critical – and with cold weather, it is vitally important that schools have as much support as possible from local authorities to ensure they have access to any maintenance support or air filtration they need.

“The announcement on exams will not necessarily bring comfort to those young people who have missed time inside the classroom. We remain concerned about absence levels, especially in Year 11.

“The Minister has a difficult decision on exams but providing as much certainty as possible to staff and students alike will be welcome.”

CONSERVATIVES: MINISTER IS “PASSING THE BUCK”

The Shadow Minister for Education, Laura Jones MS, said: “While some decisions require a local solution, the majority – like with facemasks – should be taken at the top to ensure equality of educational provision across Wales.

“It is not good enough that we have a Minister scared to go toe-to-toe with the unions, and who is comfortable going against scientific evidence when making such important decisions about safety and education provision.

“While facemasks have played a role in this pandemic, they have outlived their usefulness in schools: they make minimal difference to stopping the transmission of Covid-19, yet they can have an extremely negative effect on learners and learning in the classroom.

“On the return to exams, we welcome this decision to fall in with rest of UK – it’s fair – but we need to ensure that our young people feel confident and prepared to take these exams, and the support must be there for pupils and schools, from the Welsh Government to facilitate that.”

Laura Jones concluded: “The pandemic has been incredibly hard on the youngest in our society, with Welsh children losing out on learning more than any other UK nation. They deserve more than a government that passes the buck. Educational in not expendable.”