Younger children in Wales will begin to return to school in person later this month despite concerns from teaching unions that safety measures for staff do not go far enough.
Children in the foundation phase – those up to the age of seven – are to begin to return from 22 February and small numbers of vocational learners, including apprentices, will also be able to return to colleges.
Twice-weekly testing for staff members will be offered, as well as increased financial support for new face coverings. But the government has resisted calls for teachers to be prioritised for vaccinations, insisting it will follow the order laid out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
The education minister, Kirsty Williams, said: “When you’re part of a government that has set up an independent group of experts to provide advice on how to roll out a vaccination programme, it would be very strange to ignore that advice.”
Parents of older pupils in Wales are likely to hear a date for their children’s return when the results of the next three-weekly review is announced on 19 February.
The Welsh government is starting to think ahead to the autumn and winter terms and looking at issues such as whether the summer holidays should be shortened to allow for a longer “firebreak” half-term and longer Christmas holidays.
Williams said: “I think it’s important we try to take a longer-term view that allows us to plan more effectively. We do need to have those discussions. There is a seasonality element to Covid-19. Therefore we have to have to think about what will the autumn and winter look like.”
Williams said falling infection rates in Wales had provided enough “headroom” for some pupils to return to school. “We have prioritised our youngest learners because of the favourable evidence on transmission in younger children, and also because we know they find it difficult to learn remotely.
“Small numbers of vocational learners, including apprentices, will also be able to return to colleges. Again, this is because of difficulties with remote learning, as they will need to access training or workplace environments in order to undertake their practical qualifications.”
Unions welcomed the safety measures but said more thought needed to be given to vaccinating teachers. Neil Butler, the NASUWT national official for Wales, said: “We are pleased with the mitigations that have been announced but they fall short of the list that we have given to Welsh government officials.”
He said calls for vaccinations for education workers who could not socially distance “seems to be falling on deaf ears”, and added: “We are still pursuing this. We are also asking for education workers over 50 to be prioritised.”
Dilwyn Roberts-Young, the general secretary of the Welsh teaching union UCAC, said: “We continue to call for the governments in Westminster and Wales to state when and how they intend to prioritise school staff for vaccination in order to ensure the continuity of our pupils’ education.”
Earlier this week, the Scottish government said children in the first three years of primary school would return to classrooms from 22 February.
The government in England has said its schools will not reopen before March.
In Northern Ireland, where community transmission remains high, schools will also not fully reopen until 8 March at the earliest.
In all four countries, schools and colleges have remained open throughout lockdowns for the children of critical workers and for those children classed as vulnerable.