For those of us working in education, we have always known that teachers and our school staff are everyday heroes. In the collective response to Covid-19, they have achieved extraordinary things and become national heroes.
They, and our children and parents, deserve better than the recent loose talk we have seen about future provision. Although we are looking at plans and options for what the next phase could look like, schools in Wales will not go back to "normal" imminently.
For the next phase, there is no option that is without risk. No government in the world yet has a full understanding of how and whether children transmit the virus in the same way as other viruses or in the same way as adults.
Of course, schools are not just places for children. There are teachers, support staff, cleaners, cooks and other adults. The rush in some quarters to have more schools open "as normal" means that some people are forgetting this simple truth.
It is often overlooked that, of course, many school settings are open – providing a vital service for the children of key workers and our more vulnerable learners. This is about what a "new normal" looks like and the next phase for schools.
When we pass this peak of the virus, and the Welsh government (working with other governments) moves into the next phase, school provision will adapt and extend further.
Coronavirus: When will Welsh schools reopen?
In thinking this through, I have been clear to my officials, who are working with and across our education system, that there are key principles for that next phase.
- The safety and mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and staff.
- Continuing contribution to the national effort and strategy to fight the spread of Covid-19.
- Having the confidence of parents, staff and students – based on evidence and information – so that they can plan ahead
- The ability to prioritise learners at key points, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Consistency with the Welsh government’s framework for decision making, to have guidance in place to support measures such as distancing, managing attendance and wider protective actions.
In working through these principles, I am keen that we take stock of what is happening elsewhere. Through Wales’ membership of ARC, I’ve been able to get a sense of what is happening across North and South America, Scandinavia and Australia.
We are at different stages in the spread of the virus and wider health service responses. Norway will reopen at end of this month for the very youngest pupils, following Denmark, where pupils up to 12 years old have returned, but split into smaller classes and with strict hygiene and cleaning routines.
Whilst I do not expect that every country will adopt the exact same measures, I am looking carefully at how schools elsewhere are responding to the distancing requirements in particular. We all know that this will be a significant challenge. We will need increased safety and surveillance as part of the return to school and study.
The approach will be one of taking the necessary measures to protect, so that we reduce the risk of transmission; ensuring that children are back learning in the best environment for them; and together monitoring closely any changes in workforce absence and capacity.
Schools (and colleges and universities) are not islands. Going back to something that looks and feels more like normal will allow more parents to get back to work. There is then the wider public health matter of increasing capacity for testing and tracing, and I will be guided on the scientific and health advice on these issues.
What I can guarantee is that it will be a phased approach. I do not expect any time soon that schools across Wales will be open for all pupils, from all years, all week.
It continues to be essential that we support teachers, and parents, to help our children keep learning. This includes remote learning, through Wales’ Hwb platform, and extra support for those who face socioeconomic disadvantage, as well as learners with special educational needs. I’ll be making an announcement this week on more funding for this, particularly on getting devices and kit out to more learners.
Returning to school will not be a return to normal. In recognition of this, I have already made clear I will reduce burdens on schools – including various data collections, suspension of performance measures, and removing the requirement to undertake the national literacy and numeracy tests, as well as other forms of assessment. I believe this will help teachers in continuing to focus on supporting children to learn, to stay safe, and to enjoy being back with friends and their teachers.
Our new normal is unlikely to be one of "home one day, back in school for the year the next day". There are challenges ahead, and we will all need to maintain an adaptable approach, but one that gives our children the best chance of a school life.
I often describe education in Wales as "our national mission". A collective endeavour that reaches beyond the school gates, rooted in our history of common action. I have always had high expectations for every single learner, teacher and school, ensuring that equity and excellence go hand in hand. The past few weeks have proved, beyond any doubt, that the national mission is making a real difference to our national and international effort during these extraordinary times.
Kirsty Williams is Wales' minister for education