Northern Ireland news

Coronavirus: Social distancing in schools to be abandoned

Children are due to return to the classroom this month

CHILDREN could return to the classroom full-time next month as social distancing is expected to be set aside in favour of 'bubbling'.

All primary and some second-level pupils are expected to brought back when schools reopen.

The executive is today due to discuss a paper to allow protective bubbles from P1 right through to third year.

This represents a significant change from original guidance that recommended children return with one-metre social distancing.

Many schools had been planning to bring pupils back part-time due to the requirement to keep them apart.

However, minister Peter Weir said he wanted the executive to agree to change that before September.

Mr Weir said the aim was to see a full resumption of schools with a range of safeguards to protect pupils and staff.

Ministers are expected to today discuss these new proposals, which appear similar to those published in the Republic.

There, all students are expected to return to school in the coming academic year as long as they are not themselves sick or at very high risk.

Social distancing will not be a prerequisite for younger children but older pupils will be expected to adhere to at least one metre.

In England, all children will be going back to school in September, including those subject to local lockdowns.

Teachers and principals have, meanwhile, written to Mr Weir saying they are worried about pressure being put on schools ahead of the planned reopening.

The NIC-ICTU Education Group, which is made up of teaching and support staff unions, has concerns.

Its chair Maxine Murphy-Higgins of the NASUWT union said members were distressed "by the pressure put on individual schools and its leaders in relation to pupils returning to classrooms".

Of particular concern, she wrote, there seemed to be little guidance or direction given about meal provision, cleaning and transport.

The current guidance sets out that principals should deal with this on a school-by-school basis.

"This is not sufficient and this combined with a letter from the minister advising that there was no further money to be allocated is very concerning," Ms Murphy-Higgins said.

"Schools need to be given direction in these areas and the services need to be protected. Our meal provision is often the only hot meal a child could get in a day and this needs to be delivered. Also, cleaning in this pandemic is the one way that we can prevent the spread of the virus, while transport is key to getting some especially vulnerable children to school.

"Yes, we do expect that all the relevant precautions will be taken around social distancing and PPE, but clear direction needs to be given."

She added that many support staff had not been advised when they should return to school.

"We know that some schools have made the decision not have school meals until September without setting out when they will recommence. Classroom assistants have not been given any information as to when they should return even though many schools will have pupils back by 24th August," she said.

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