Northern Ireland news

Coronavirus: Teaching unions express concern over plan to fully reopen schools

All schools will reopen by the end of August

ALL schools will reopen full-time and "safely" at the end of this month, the education minister has confirmed.

Peter Weir said a five-day-a-week return is what parents want and is "the best outcome for children".

However, teaching unions last night said the relaxation of social distancing requirements was a "cause of deep concern".

Schools have been closed since March with most young people learning from home.

Pupils from P1 through to third year in secondary schools will now return for the new team in protected bubbles, with no requirement for social distancing.

There will be efforts to minimise movements between classes for Years 11 to 14.

Yesterday's decision by the executive 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.

Mr Weir said one of his primary concerns was the long term educational impact on young people as a result of the prolonged disruption of face-to-face teaching.

"It is positive news for our parents, for our teachers, for society as a whole, but particularly for our young people that they are able to fully access education," he said.

"The idea is to try and have the maximum level of social distancing, but the overriding issue is to ensure we have full classes."

Mr Weir rejected claims that the guidance was being issued too late, saying he had to wait to see "what the prevailing conditions were".

"We are still operating in a pandemic and everyone has a vital role to play in ensuring that hygiene and public health measures are adhered to by all to allow our young people a safe return to education," he added.

"The revised guidance will allow schools to operate on a basis where the requirement for strict social distancing between pupils in school and on dedicated home to school transport is maintained where possible, while acknowledging that in some circumstances this is not practical.

"Protective bubbles will be used as a key measure in helping to limit the number of different interactions between groups. Enhanced hygiene and cleaning measures remain vital."

Gerry Murphy, northern secretary of the INTO union, said teachers supported a full return to normality for all pupils as soon as safely possible.

"We as trade unions have a duty to protect the health and well-being not only of our members but to those children and young people in their care," he said.

"A wider reopening of schools such as minister Weir is now directing goes beyond the New School Day guidance of the 19th of June and is a cause of deep concern to our members.

"The minister and his department have not supplied the updated information which has brought about the change in their position. Now, with six working days until the original proposed reopening date, school managements are being forced to make further unreasonable demands of the education workforce."

Justin McCamphill, of the NASUWT, also said there was insufficient clarity and detail.

"The changes to the New School Day Guidance will force principals and teachers to again redraft and unpick physical changes which they have already laboured to put in place," he said.

"The dumping of social distancing and the apparent belief of the minister and his executive colleagues that schools exist outside of normal society and are somehow immune to the virus presents a real threat to education workers, children and society.

"Teachers and our colleagues in the education workforce deserve better."

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