Northern Ireland news

Plans to reopen schools could change if number of Covid-19 cases declines

Opening schools early will need the support of teachers
Cate McCurry, PA

Contingency plans to reopen schools in Northern Ireland could change if the number of Covid-19 cases continues to decline, the Education Minister has said.

Peter Weir said the principal issue of returning to full-time education is striking a balance between carrying out preparation work before September against “events overtaking us in a positive way”.

He told the Education Committee that things are moving “fairly quickly”.

Primary and secondary pupils will be required to keep one metre apart, but the social distancing rule of two metres will remain in place for teachers.

“If things move the way they are moving we may be in a different environment come August and September and may have to adjust again,” Mr Weir said.

He added that current guidance is based on advice from practitioners and is based on getting the “maximum number of children” back to school.

“The best possible solution is to have children face-to-face within a classroom environment,” he added.

Schools have been closed in Northern Ireland since March, with the traditional summer term normally finishing at the end of June in the region.

Teachers will now return to school on August 17. Key year groups – seven, 12 and 14 – will return a week later on August 24. The rest of the school population will go back to class at the start of September.

All primary school children, and secondary school children in younger year groups, will have to remain in protective bubbles limited to their own classes when they return.

Committee chairperson Chris Lyttle asked whether there is a budget allocated to help schools to restart.

Mr Weir said if there are additional costs, particularly around reopening schools, those will be “absorbed centrally”.

“We are trying to scope out the details of what that would mean and I think we will be seeking additional support from the Executive,” he added.

Mr Lyttle added: “So at this moment in time there is no budget for education restart?”

Mr Weir added: “Effectively, money will be found. Given the fact that the budget is as it is and allocated in April, it will be the case of obtaining additional resources or seeking within the system as to what we can redeploy.”

Mr Weir described it as a “fluid situation”.

Mr Lyttle added: “Is this based on a hope that the education restart will be possibly closer to normal provision than your contingency guidance suggests?”

Mr Weir disagreed, saying there are ongoing discussions around funding.

He said there is further information to come including a “very comprehensive document” stretching to over 50 pages.

“The hope would be that as things move on there can be a further shift in gear to ensure that we can have arrangements which enable every pupil to be in all the time,” Mr Weir added.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan raised concerns that some schools will not have enough classroom space to hold 50% of pupils, particularly in older, rural buildings.

“Teachers are concerned that even with the one metre distance in classrooms they won’t be able to fit half of the class into the room,” Mr McCrossan said.

Mr Weir said he would be “extremely surprised” if some schools could not fit in 50%.

He added that where schools cannot provide space, other buildings including churches and halls, could be used.

Mr McCrossan also said there is “considerable anxiety” about what will be in place to ensure the safety of staff and pupils.

Ulster Unionist Robbie Butler asked: “If social distancing cannot be met, can a whole class be brought back in under the auspice of a social bubble for a class?”

Mr Weir replied: “The position is that the social bubble for those years one to 10 is linked in with the social distancing and it may well be if things move on, and if we are in a better place in August and September, then in effect a protective bubble could replace a level of social distancing.”

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