Minister for Education Gilbert Licudi

Good afternoon

Welcome to the Government’s COVID-19 daily briefing.

I am joined today by my colleague Albert Isola who will address you on primarily business-related matters.

On 24 March, most schools in Gibraltar closed as part of a series of measures designed to protect our community from the coronavirus.

A lockdown was put in place to control and, ultimately, to prevent the spread of the disease in a way which would cause large numbers of infected persons and overwhelm the GHA.

At the same time, arrangements were made to increase the number of beds available, the number of ventilators and to have sufficient stocks of PPE.

As we were doing all of that, we were constantly advising everyone of the need to stay at home and on the importance of social distancing and hand hygiene.

The lockdown has affected everyone, individuals (whether young or old) and businesses.

The effect of the lockdown has been that we have so far not seen a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases nor on the demands on the GHA.

Numbers have remained relatively low and we have not had a single COVID death.

We need to keep it that way.

We can only do so by continuing to follow the rules, by continuing to listen to the advice which the Government and Public Health Gibraltar are giving.

At the same time, we recognise that a lockdown cannot last forever.

We are already seeing the relaxation of some measures in other countries.

A key feature of what every single country is doing is a cautious, prudent approach with gradual steps taken and pauses between each step to assess the effect before moving to the next phase.

That is precisely what we will be doing in Gibraltar.

Over the last week, you will have heard the Chief Minister and other colleagues in Government tell you about our plans to ease restrictions.

A route map out of lockdown is being finalised and will be published shortly.

That route map includes our plans for a gradual and limited reopening of schools.

Those plans have been developed and agreed with the teachers’ union NASUWT.

I want to share with you today details of the Education road map for the reopening of schools.

Specifically, this will deal with the steps we are proposing to take between now and the end of the school term on 7 July.

Before I do that, I will provide you with the COVID-19 figures for today.

Total swabs:       3366

Results pending:     259

Results received:          3107

Negative:            2850

Confirmed:              144

Active:                3

Recovered:        141

These results include the tests from the ongoing frontline targeted and systematic programme.

The total random swabs taken as part of that programme is 721, with 172 results pending.

There have been only 2 confirmed cases from the 549 results received with 1 recovered and 1 active.

In the last 24 hours, there were 44 attendances to A&E.

7 had COVID symptoms.

4 were swabbed.

There was one admission to the John (COVID) Ward and no admission to the COVIID CCU.

These figures are naturally encouraging but they also demonstrate that the virus is still out there and that we cannot let our guard down.

Our efforts to contain the spread of the disease must continue.

On 18th March, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education in the UK announced that schools would close.

By then, school attendance in Gibraltar was down to around 35%.

That week, the UK examination boards confirmed that GCSE and A level examinations for the summer 2020 would be cancelled.

Given the low attendance, the fact that UK schools would close and the cancellation of exams, we agreed with the teachers’ union NASUWT that it would not be possible to continue to deliver the National Curriculum in Gibraltar.

All schools except Notre Dame in the lower primary sector, St Anne’s in the upper primary sector, Westside in the secondary sector and St Martin’s closed as from 24 March.

Since then, Notre Dame, St Anne’s and Westside have been operating as childcare supervision facilities and St Martin’s has also been open.

The childcare supervision facilities have been open at weekends and have operated extended hours.

They have also been open during all public holidays and the periods when schools would have been on holiday (such as Easter).

We also put in place a home learning service for the many children that were at home.

As we start to ease our way out of lockdown, we must plan for the reopening of schools.

Last week, I explained the principles which would guide us as we developed this plan.

These principles are designed to prioritise the safety and security of all the children, teachers and other staff in schools – as well as the safety and security of the whole community. 

I would like to repeat those four principles.

They are as follows:

  1. A gradual, slow return to schools to be achieved with a prudent pause between each step.
  2. Public health advice on social distancing and hand hygiene to be respected throughout the period to the end of the summer term.
  3. Children who are at a critical stage of their learning journey are brought back first with some children being brought back to each school.
  4. The Department of Education and schools will maintain, to the extent and for as long as possible, the following services:
  5.   home learning for those not able to attend school;
  6. childcare supervision facilities for those parents who need to work and who are unable to arrange alternative childcare without involving relatives over the age of 70;
  7. extended hours for children of key workers who need to work shifts.

Acting in accordance with those principles, we have now developed a staged plan for the reopening of schools.

St Martin’s will continue to operate until the end of term as it has been operating during lockdown.

For the next three weeks there will be no change in the current arrangements involving Notre Dame, St Anne’s and Westside, except that weekend supervision will cease on Sunday 17 May.

This is consistent with public health advice of waiting a prudent period between steps out of lockdown.

We have started to ease restrictions on businesses and we should wait three weeks to assess any effect this may have before taking the first step in Education.

Extended hours supervision and the creche facility will end on Friday 22 May.

All schools will reopen in a limited way on Tuesday 26 May, the day after the late spring bank holiday.

 

In the lower primary sector, year 2 will be brought back.

They will be split in two with half attending for two hours in the morning and the other half for two hours in the afternoon.

Similarly, in the upper primary sector with year 6.

Years 2 and 6 will be moving to a new school in September.

Transition work is completed with these pupils during this term, in order to prepare them for the transition to their new school.

It is critical to do some of this work with these children.

That is why years 2 and 6 have been chosen as the first year groups to be brought back.

We will also have Year 6 attending the Hebrew Primary School –  split up into smaller groups.

Our plan is to bring one year group back to Bayside and Westside.

This is subject to announcements in the UK, which may happen this Sunday, on the easing of restrictions and possibly on the reopening of schools.

We expect to be in a position to take a decision as to which year group or groups will be the first to start in our secondary schools by next week.

After the first step is taken on 26 May, we will wait another three weeks before we take the next Education step.

That second step will coincide with the start of summer hours, or half days as some of us used to call it, on Tuesday 16th June.

The second step will involve all children who have been attending in the morning or the afternoon all attending in the morning.

We will also consider nearer the time whether any other year groups will be brought back as part of the second step.

That arrangement will then continue for another three weeks until the end of term on Tuesday 7 July.

Parents will be informed, via the usual school channels of communication, what plans will be in place for their children.

I should stress that these plans, as with everything else related to the easing of restrictions, will be fluid.

We will need to assess that the public health criteria for unlocking continue to be met at each stage of the process.

We will also be monitoring the effect of any particular step, whether in Education or more generally, before deciding to take the next step.

We will consider the numbers attending to make sure that we can take the step prudently and safely.

Arrangements may therefore be modified to deal with any particular issue that may arise.

It is, in any event, obvious from what I have said, in particular with the slow, gradual approach which we will be taking, that there is insufficient time and it is simply not possible or even desirable to bring all children back to school this term.

In fact, the majority of children will remain at home.

Those children will continue to be supported with home learning.

In addition to the year groups that will be coming back, the schools will also be available to children of other years who meet the criteria for childcare supervision facilities.

In particular, this is available for children whose parents need to work and who cannot make alternative childcare supervision facilities without involving relatives over the age of 70.

It is imperative that any parents who wish to use this service should fill in the form that is available at www.education.gov.gi.

The form must be filled in by the Thursday of the week before, at the latest.

An important change as from 26 May from what has happened until now is that children will go back to their own schools if they require the supervision facilities.

Also, as from this date, the facilities are available only for children enrolled in Government schools.

As we start the gradual and limited reopening of schools, we will be adopting strategies to mitigate risks.

Above all, our main priority will be to safeguard the wellbeing of all children and staff in our buildings and under our care.

Risk assessments will be carried out to ensure adequate social distancing measures are adopted.

Staggered entry and dismissal will operate to avoid larger gatherings.

There will be regular and more frequent cleaning.

Consideration is also being given to how to handle break times and the ratio of the approximate numbers of children to adults in class. 

We are aware that returning to school after the Covid-19 lockdown is going to be hard and will be a very different experience for every school and for children, staff and parents.

We will all have been changed by the experience of the lockdown.

It will take time for us to adjust to the ‘new’ normal.

We will need to recognise and allow for this by acknowledging that we need to be patient and understanding to each other and ourselves.

The re-establishment of routines may be difficult.

This will not just be for school routines; it will also be for those basic daily life routines, such as sleep and getting up.

Different people will have had very different experiences during the lockdown.

It will take time to re-establish and re-learn the expectations of school behaviour and learning.

A key focus in school will be on rebuilding relationships and establishing routines.

Schools will work sensitively with the aim of establishing a firm basis for children from which they can move on.

We are acutely aware that the impact of the lockdown will be even greater for those with special needs.

School closures will have had an impact on their learning as will issues of being or not being in school, managing change, routines and anxieties.

The transition of these children will need to be managed with enhanced sensitivity.

Many children will be looking forward to the return to school but some may find being around people difficult, frightening and overwhelming.

We will need to be aware of this and support these children.

Above all, we will make every effort to make this transition ‘back to school’ as smooth and stress-free as possible for all those involved – children, parents and staff.

We ask parents to work closely with school staff to ensure we can safeguard the children’s physical and emotional wellbeing during this period of adjustment.