Masks, bubbles, social distancing and Covid tests will probably still be needed in schools in September, headteachers have warned.

But secondary and primary heads hope wearing masks can be ended “as soon as possible” warning they make teaching and learning harder.

As they prepare to re-open full time this week to all pupils for the first time since Christmas school leaders said they must also think ahead to the autumn.

While it’s too early to be certain they are planning for different scenarios, depending on public health advice nearer the time.

Although the vaccine programme is going well and death rates plummeting fears of a third wave means government scientific advisors may tell schools to continue with mitigations like masks and bubbles, social distancing, one way systems and Covid testing at the start of next academic year too.

“We are preparing for all eventualities but being optimistic,” said Jackie Parker, headteacher at Crickhowell High.

“It’s too early to say for September but we are potentially preparing for bubbles and we will be looking at social distancing and hand sanitising and lateral flow testing. We are planning for all eventualities but being optimistic.

“Once the adult population is vaccinated, which I hope is by the end of September, I would hope we can move away from bubbles.

“I would also hope we can move away from masks in classrooms. You need to see people’s whole faces in education to be able to get responses fully.

“While I would hope we can move away from masks in classrooms I think we probably have to be prepared for masks in communal areas for a while.”

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Chloe Ford, the new chair of Cardiff Primary Headteachers’ Association and headteacher at Meadowlane Primary in the city and Julian Kennedy, head teacher of Dyffryn Taf Comprehensive in Whitland, Carmarthenshire would also like to see an end to end to masks.

“Face coverings do get in the way of teaching and we would much prefer to see them gone as soon as possible and certainly from September, but I can’t see that happening this term,” said Mr Kennedy.

“We are having some concerns about masks raised by parents, although compliance is high.

“Wearing a mask means it is not as easy to make yourself clear. You lose quite a lot of nuance in terms of facial interaction.

“It causes particular problems for pupils who lip read, or use some lip reading and facial cues. In an ideal world I would like to see face coverings gone fully in September in schools but earlier if it is safe to do so and that’s the medical advice. “

Mrs Ford said most of her staff would prefer not to wear masks and are hoping the advice to do so can change soon.

“I hope that come September we can be in a position in primary schools where we can operate more normally,” said Mrs Ford.

“In primaries staff have to socially distance, or wear PPE if they can’t. Teachers are having to wear masks when teaching. That’s something I really hope can end in September .

“Children need to see teachers and to see and read emotions and they are losing all that at the moment.

“A vast majority of my staff would be very happy not to have to wear masks teaching. I have some staff medically vulnerable and completely understand that, but the vast majority would be happy not to have to wear masks.”

The current Welsh Government advice to schools is that masks must be worn by all pupils and staff in secondary schools and colleges wherever they can’t socially distance, including classrooms.

In primaries the advice is that staff must socially distance, or wear masks, but children do not need to do so.

All pupils aged over 14 are being asked to take twice weekly lateral flow Covid-19 tests. Staff are also being offered these tests.

Pupils and staff must remain in contact group bubbles, usually the year group.

Mass gatherings such as assemblies, staff meetings, school drama productions and sports events cannot take place.

Schools have also followed advice to create one way systems, ventilate buildings, stagger start and finish times and try to have as many activities and outside as possible. Frequent handwashing and sanitising is also carried out and cleaning is more frequent.

Even beyond next winter heads believe some risk mitigations will probably remain in schools long tern, such as washing and sanitising hands.

Mass gatherings, such as assemblies, staff meetings, school shows and sports events are also unlikely to be possible at the start of the new academic year, or for some time, they fear.

Keith Maher, headteacher at pen y Dre High in Merthyr, an area that along with Rhondda Cynon Taf, has suffered more Covid deaths per capita than anywhere else in the UK since last March, said schools will have to keep assessing the risks locally.

Mr Maher, who himself had Covid before Christmas said pupil wellbeing and health is key.

“Ultimately we just don’t know what it will be like in September. It’s too early to call. We hope the pandemic will be suppressed to an extent that we can relax some of the protocols. We will listen to advice from Welsh Government as each week passes,” he said.

“There is a sense we will have tipped the balance and can start to relax but we will do everything we need. We don’t want to find ourselves back in lockdown.”

Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru said people don’t want to raise hopes for school life to be more normal from September only for those hopes to be dashed as they were at Christmas.

“What we are hoping is all these layers of rules won’t be necessary but what we have learned in this pandemic is we have to expect the unexpected.

“It may well be that all the mitigations are still in place in September. We hope we won’t need to exercise all the controls but have to prepare and be realistic.

“Schools are now in a very good routine of controls and mitigation. Epidemiologists will have to advise, but controls may still be in place.

“I would say people are in a space where they see that has to be something they continue planning for.”

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