Social distancing can be relaxed when schools reopen in Northern Ireland
Social distancing can be “relaxed” when schools reopen in Northern Ireland, the education minister confirmed.
Teachers’ unions said educators had not been given enough time to respond to new guidance issued on Thursday.
All pupils are due to return to their desks by the end of the month for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown in March.
Recommendations of two metres distancing must continue to be followed between adults within the education sector, the education department’s notice said.
Minister Peter Weir said: “Within school, in circumstances where strict social distancing between children cannot reasonably be applied, the use of ‘protective bubbles’, decreasing interaction and movement around the school must be followed.
“This additional mitigating measure has been applied successfully by other countries in their arrangements for reopening of schools.”
Face coverings were not recommended for routine use.
The minister added: “The guidance also promotes a flexible approach to use of existing spaces as a means of maximising face-to-face teaching opportunities and provides the framework within which workforce planning can now be developed.”
On Thursday he published his department’s revised guidelines setting out how schools should plan for the new school day.
Mr Weir added: “This latest guidance takes into account the Executive’s agreement of August 6 that the requirement for strict social distancing between children may be relaxed in the presence of other mitigations.”
He said the rules will remain “agile” and will continue to reflect public health advice.
“We will continue to keep under review all medical and scientific developments.”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said it was “entirely unfair and unrealistic” to expect schools to be able to respond effectively with just one week before they are due to open fully to all students.
“Given the commitment to reopen schools fully for the start of the autumn term, ministers must now commit the resources that will be needed to enable schools to implement the guidance and to reopen safely.
“Employers must ensure that the health and safety of pupils and staff remains paramount and that everything that needs to be done is done to enable schools to reopen safely.”
Justin McCamphill, NASUWT national official in Northern Ireland, added: “It is now abundantly clear that returning without the guarantee of social distancing will increase workload burdens for school principals and teachers.
“Without social distancing schools will have to implement more mitigating measures not fewer.”
The union Unison Northern Ireland has around 8,000 members working across education settings, most of them in the front line of service delivery for children and young people like classroom assistants.
Regional organiser Marianne Buick said: “The guidance published today raises more questions than answers.
“With the return of schools imminent, we continue to have serious concerns about the health and safety of pupils and our members.
“These concerns cannot be set aside to satisfy a political imperative to get all children back into school.
“We want to see schools reopened, but this must be done in a safe and responsible manner.”