Headteacher Meilir Tomos was watching on with satisfaction and relief as children finally got back into the swing of lessons in their Cardiff primary school after more than two months in lockdown at home.
“It’s great to see them back,” said Tomos. “There’s always going to be an element of risk in returning. Every day you worry that a staff member or a parent is going to say they have got Covid, but we’ve put things in place to make sure it’s as safe as can be.”
“There would be a bit of fear if everyone was returning at the same time. Ours is a more cautious approach. Obviously as a headteacher I’d like to see all the pupils back but you have to be sensible.”
The manner of schools returning is a stark example of different approaches to the lifting of lockdown being followed by the home nations.
The UK government has said all schools in England can reopen to all pupils on 8 March – though on Wednesday the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said secondaries would be allowed to stagger students’ return over two weeks.
Wales and Scotland are both following much more of a phased approach with all pupils and students unlikely to be back before April.
Tomos’s school, Ysgol Glan Morfa, in Splott, south Cardiff, has been looking after vulnerable youngsters and key workers’ children since January but from this week all children aged three to seven were allowed back. “It feels more of a normal school now,” said Tomos.
The head was honest in his assessment of delays in his pupils learning. “All in all, you are looking at them being a year behind,” he said. “We hope the rest will be back in three weeks as long as the science allows,” he said.
The Welsh education minister, Kirsty Williams, who was visiting the school on Wednesday, expressed bemusement at the stance in England.
“The scientific advice is that we need to open up our schools gradually,” she said.
Williams stressed that the approach wasn’t a “weird and wonderful” one and the government was simply following the advice of the UK-wide Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O), which in January said returning all pupils together would raise the R number by between 10 and 50%.
The minister said she would not criticise Boris Johnson or try to surmise why England was going down a different path. “All I can say is we’re confident we’re following the best advice. We’re following an approach that has been taken in Scandinavian countries, other European countries, the United States and Scotland. I’m not aware of any country in the world that after a prolonged lockdown and given the seriousness of the situation has returned their schools all in one go.”
However, arguments in Northern Ireland show what a tricky issue the return to school is, with a plan for a cautious and phased reopening of schools dividing the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
Initially, all ministers backed a decision for some primary pupils to return to school on 8 March followed by some secondary pupils two weeks later and a wider reopening at a later unspecified date.
But after the UK government announced a full return for English schools the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) urged Northern Ireland to accelerate its own plans.
However, the health minister Robin Swann, of the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), and the chief medical officer, Michael McBride, favour caution. “There is a significant risk at this point in time if we move back … too quickly or too rapidly that we will see a resurgence in cases that could result in a further wave of infection which could be even greater than the numbers we saw back in January,” said McBride.
It was all much simpler at Ysgol Glan Morfa, where teaching assistant Gethin Bickerton was supervising pupils playing – and learning – in the school’s make-believe shop.
Bickerton was an actor but when that work dried up because of the pandemic he became one of the extra 1,000 members of staff working in education after the Welsh government made £29m available to help schools recruit extra staff to help cope with the crisis.
He said he was “a little nervous” to return to school. “But it’s been lovely to see the pupils back. They are clearly happy to be back here. I hope it’s not long before the rest return too.”