Northern Ireland news

`Urgent guidance needed' from Education Minister Peter Weir on full-time classroom return

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said focus must be on `education and health and wellbeing recovery' after more than three months of lost classroom education

EDUCATION minister Peter Weir must help teachers "plan and implement a safe return to the classroom in as close to a full timetable as possible", the chair of the department's scrutiny committee has urged.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said focus must be on "education and health and wellbeing recovery" after more than three months of lost classroom education.

He was responding to a blunt letter signed by more than 170 doctors warning the closure of schools until September is having a "huge mental, social, emotional and educational impact on the children".

The medics said "a return to full time education no longer appears to be a priority of the minister", warning "the proposed potential 9-10 month break for many children will result in educational disadvantages that can never be recovered from".

Mr Lyttle said "everyone, not least teachers, understands we must return our children and young people to full-time education as soon as possible".

"Schools need urgent guidance from the education minister in terms of many issues, including social distancing, PPE and the curriculum, in order to plan and implement a safe return to the classroom in as close to a full timetable as possible.

"The covid-19 crisis has demanded much from our children and young people, and we need to ensure our focus now turns to educational and health and wellbeing recovery."

A department spokeswoman said the concerns are "legitimate", and it "has taken time to thoroughly plan for the safe and effective reopening of all school settings, taking into consideration the highly complex issues involved".

She said guidance on reopening "will issue shortly", but appeared to rule out `catch-up weeks during summer holidays, saying "phased reopening" will see "limited provision for key cohort years during August" and then "a phased provision for all pupils, in line with normal restart dates already set by schools".

It will be "a mixture of school attendance and remote learning at home."

The doctors had criticised such plans, pointing out "home-schooling is not equal for all, largely due to parental work commitments and level of parental education", lack of access to computers or the need for access to be prioritised "by the parent(s) working from home so that they can maintain their employment and income".

The department spokeswoman acknowledged the "need to help secure the best possible educational future for all our children in what are extremely difficult circumstances".

"It is important for pupils' education, social interaction, routine and emotional mental health and well-being, that we begin to see recovery and a positive process of phased reopening of our schools.

"Despite all the good work done, it is clear that the longer that children are out of school full time, the more it prejudices their long term educational prospects. Therefore the aim remains to achieve a return to full time classroom education as soon as medical guidance allows this."

Consultation is continuing with principals and trade unions, with Mr Weir due to talk to union leaders tomorrow, with "new school day arrangements" on the agenda.

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