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Education Minister, Senator Tracey Vallois press conference speech

28 May 2020

Good afternoon and thank you for joining me today.

I hope that I find you all keeping safe and well. We have been engaged in a phenomenal task working together to protect our Island, our loved ones and friends, and ourselves. It is good to be with you again, albeit virtually, to give you this important and positive update.

As you will recall, ten weeks ago, I took the unprecedented decision of closing all Government-provided schools, colleges and nurseries to assist in our effort to contain the threat and spread of Covid-19 in our community.

As a parent, I know just how challenging and difficult these last ten weeks have been for everyone who has had to rapidly adapt to the changing world around them.
I would like to say how extremely grateful and proud I am of our pupils and students, parents and carers, school leaders, teachers, support staff, the trades unions, nurseries, nannies and childminders and the officers across my Department, all of whom have pulled out every  stop to ensure that our children and young people have been, and continue to be, supported to the best of our abilities every step of the way.

As part of these incredible efforts, our:
  • special schools remained open
  • schools, colleges and some nurseries and childminders re-opened for the children of critical workers and some vulnerable children
  • schooling moved to virtual teaching and remote learning for pupils and students
  • and, headteachers, teachers and support staff volunteered to enable holiday opening with planned activities for children of critical workers 
  • and, throughout, the safety of our children and young people, staff and families remain mine, the department’s and the Government’s absolute priority.
Together we have risen to the challenges and brought all of our commitment and expertise to bear on this unique situation. I know that we can, and will, continue to do so.

The next stage in this demanding journey is here. Today, I am pleased to announce that the official advice we have received from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC) and the Medical Officer for Health, who is here with us this afternoon, means that I am in the position of being able to announce the gradual re-opening of schools.

The advice that I have received strongly supports my decision that more children should return to school for both their educational and wider wellbeing. 

Dr Susan Turnbull and her colleagues have advised that:
  • schools are safe to start re-opening as soon as possible prioritising the year groups suggested by education professionals and ensuring that measures are in place for them to do so safely
  • the risks to children of being away from school currently outweigh the health risk from COVID-19 of them being in school
  • children should return to school as soon as is practically possible, while ensuring that public health measures can be maintained
  • growing evidence that children are not super spreaders and when infected, the level of the virus appears to be no less/greater than adults
  • it is in children’s best interests to return to school, reassured that it is safe for them to do so.
It was emphasised unanimously by the STAC that if the appropriate hygiene, physical distancing and, where applicable, “bubble” measures or small groups of children are applied in school settings, to reduce the number of contacts that each child and teachers has, then schools should be supported to reopen on a phased basis, allowing more children to return. 

It has been a long ten weeks for everyone. And I believe that now is the right time to begin our careful phased return to schools following this latest scientific and health advice.

To give you some more details, I have decided that, from 8 June, under a careful phased approach:
  • primary schools will welcome back Year 6 students to join those children already in school 
  • secondary schools will begin the reintroduction of face-to-face learning for Years 10 and Year 12
  • nurseries will be able to welcome back a set number of children into bubbles and children will also be allowed to return to their childminder or nanny, in accordance with established guidance agreed with public health.  
I recognise this does not enable all children to attend their normal setting and that there will be further constraints based on the size of premises, staff availability and ratios of staff to children.

I know that all children and young people are missing their friends, their teachers, their nurseries, schools and colleges, which is why I am pleased to be able to tell you of my decision to take this phased approach to enable further children to return.

As we move into the first phase of implementation, officials will continue to assess the medical evidence and advice available from the STAC to understand whether or not it will be appropriate and possible for additional children and students to attend their school or nursery two weeks later. Further planning is also underway to determine how and when other secondary age pupils can return.
The number of students to return will depend on the public health advice received on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the Jersey community and whether physical distancing guidelines allow more pupils to access school. 

Officers are also ensuring that the options put forward and any decisions proposed are made in the light of a rolling Child Rights Impact Assessment. The framework for this consists of a number of key tests that officials have identified for a safe return, augmented by advice received from the trade unions and, most importantly, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. 

As I am sure you can imagine, there has been a considerable amount of work undertaken behind the scenes to reach this point. In particular, to enable children to return safely to schools, officials from the Department for Children, Young People, Education and Skills are working closely with colleagues in Public Health to ensure successful safety measures are identified and put into place in all schools. 

These will include, for example:
  • strict requirements that no symptomatic children or staff attend school
  • a bubble approach, where groups of children remain together, is implemented
  • where the bubble approach is not used, adherence to 2m physical distancing between pupils and staff in classrooms, corridors, etc. 
  • where bubbles are used these will observe strict physical distancing between the bubbles
  • marking of corridors / stairwells to maintain distancing
  • staggered start, lunch and breaks and pickups 
  • no use of shared equipment where it cannot be cleaned between users 
  • PPE available to staff if a child or staff member becomes symptomatic in school  
  • increased frequency of cleaning.
Comprehensive guidance has been developed, for which I am grateful to officials, but also to school leaders and trades union representatives, and it is being used to ensure that every school has a robust plan that meets with public health as well as health and safety requirements.

I know this will be a worrying time for students and parents and I want to assure them that we – Ministers and officials - have considered the views expressed by children and young people on how they feel about returning to school. 

On behalf of the Children’s Commissioner and my Department, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the 2,105 children and young people in Jersey who completed a survey to share their thoughts and feelings about the coronavirus pandemic. 

This confidential survey was a unique collaborative project between the Children, Young People, Education and Skills Department and the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and I am most grateful for the Commissioner’s contribution. Her role in upholding the rights of our children is highly valued and the joint commissioning of this survey is testament both to the Commissioner’s commitment to this agenda and my Department’s desire to work closely with her on this importance issue.

Officials and the Commissioner are continuing to analyse and interpret the comprehensive survey, which we estimate contains more than 300,000 words from our children and young people.

But, given the need to undertake the planning for re-opening schools, we have already looked very carefully at the findings, that illustrate how children and young people are feeling about returning to school.

While many have shared their excitement and concerns about going back to school, it is estimated that around 2,000 children and young people do feel anxious.

More than 80% of children said that they missed their friends. Around 90% of children over age 7 have been in contact with friends, compared to 77% of children aged 5-7.

About one in three children expressed some sort of concern, such as anxiety, sadness, or safety concerns. Of these, anxiety was most common, affecting around 10% for primary children and 15-20% for older children. Younger children were more likely to express sadness about going back to school. Around 8% of children of any age mentioned safety concerns. 

Given Jersey’s school population, the data experts say this equates to around 2,000 children experiencing anxiety and 1,000 having safety concerns.
As a result of these views, I have asked officers to ensure that a wellbeing package is prepared and offered to children returning to school.

Furthermore, I have asked my Department to work on a campaign, with child-friendly messages, to help improve confidence and encourage children to take those first steps back to school. 

The survey is much broader than views on returning to schools and I am committed, as I know that the Children’s Minister is too, to working closely with the Commissioner to understand the implications of the wider responses. We also intend to explore the survey with a wider audience – yourselves and, crucially, children and young people. So, there will be the chance to discuss the findings with us jointly.

So, as I begin to wrap up, please allow me to emphasise one or two points.
I am committed to providing sufficient time for parents, pupils, students, schools, colleges and nurseries to plan appropriately for reopening to more children and young people and provide information, advice and guidance - as well as continuing the ongoing consultation with headteachers and trade unions representatives. Hence, the process starts on the 8 June.

At the same time as preparing for the implementation of plans for Years 6,10 and 12, Government of Jersey primary schools will look to extend their offering in two weeks’ time; while Secondary schools will continue to explore what support can be provided to other year groups, especially Year 11 and Year 13 students, who have now finished school, and are about to embark on the next phase of their education / work career. 

Similarly, Highlands College will begin to provide some face-to-face learning for Year 12 and 13 students and Department Officials and school leaders will work on a transition plan for Year 6 students to Year 7, and those moving at the end of Year 9 to Hautlieu School.
Officials from the Department will also continue work with headteachers from private primary and secondary schools to establish their offer to their students. 

So, to summarise. I am proposing that:
  • schools will re-open on 8 June to Years 6, 10 and 12
  • private nurseries can also begin opening to a set number of children in bubbles from 8 June
  • nannies and childminders may also return to work from this date
  • this is the start of our careful phased approach to re-opening schools, colleges and nurseries. 
Covid-19 infection rates in the community will continue to be carefully monitored to see if the re-opening of schools has any impact.

This will inform our decisions on the return of further year groups in primary schools from two weeks later. 

And this will be led by Public Health advice and in consultation with school leaders and union colleagues and will be supported by an updated child risk impact assessment.
The safety of children, staff and their families remain mine and the Department’s absolute priority. 

I am joined by Children’s Minister Senator Sam Mézec, Director General of Children, Young People, Education and Skills Mark Rogers and the Medical Officer of Health Dr Susan Turnbull.

Thank you to the media for their questions and to everyone for listening. We look forward to welcoming more children back to our schools, colleges and nurseries and keeping everyone updated as we work together through this careful phased approach of safely re-opening schools.
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