Northern Ireland

Special schools keep their doors closed to pupils

Chris Donnelly at St John the Baptist PS with packs for pupils to work from home. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Chris Donnelly at St John the Baptist PS with packs for pupils to work from home. Picture by Hugh Russell.

SPECIAL schools yesterday refused to open to pupils amid concerns about the health and safety children and staff.

Governors of schools said coronavirus posed very specific risks both to and by pupils.

All schools were told by Education Minister Peter Weir that they should shut for the rest of the year.

They must also remain open "to ensure provision for vulnerable children and for key workers' children up to the end of Year 10", however.

Several others schools remained closed to pupils yesterday to allow teachers to prepare packs to be sent home to pupils, including St John the Baptist PS in west Belfast.

There is no set limit to the number of pupils a school can admit, as long as guidelines on social distancing are observed.

Parents were told to send their children in to school only as a last resort.

They were warned they could be in for "difficult conversations" if they had an alternative means of ensuring they were looked after.

A group of 10 special schools in Belfast had voluntarily closed down ahead of the blanket lockdown.

In a new letter to parents, they explained that they initially closed to minimise the risk of infection and to keep children safe.

The special schools said there was a need for clarity on what was meant by "vulnerable", as that would cover all their pupils.

The key workers list, they added, was "extensive".

To gauge how many pupils would need to attend school this week, parents were asked to fill in a form detailing if they were a key worker.

It is understood the schools were inundated with requests for children to attend.

Parents were told it was essential that schools were still able to comply with the ultimate reason for closing in the first place.

"Consequently, we will only be able to offer places for childcare based on capacity," the letter read.

"We need to be able to manage who can access the offer, otherwise the original reason for closure of schools becomes meaningless.

"In practice, this may mean we are not able to safely provide the offer of childcare from Monday, but may need a few days to organise provision."

On Friday, Mr Weir said there was no perfect solution to the dire situation.

He accepted that his department's guidance would not answer all questions and concerns but said it would continue to provide updates as quickly as possible.

"We will monitor and assess this situation in the days and weeks ahead and the number of schools which will need to remain open in the future will be revised in the light of this information," he said.

"There will naturally be a period of transition and we will undoubtedly face a range of challenges, both expected and unforeseen. Together we will work through these difficulties by mustering the patience and compassion that such extraordinary times require."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, urged parents not to mistake the spirit of battling on for behaviour that is instead reckless.

"As many children as possible should stay away from school. To do otherwise will risk the health of your family and the successful response to Covid-19," he said.

"Please do not confuse 'Dunkirk Spirit' with recklessness."

He also urged employers not to take advantage of the lengthy list of key workers in order to keep their staff in work.

"My appeal to companies and other employers: Please do not interpret the key workers lists liberally for your own ends," he said.

"Do not put profit over people. School places are there for the most vulnerable and to keep truly crucial operations running."