Northern Ireland news

Peter Weir vows to oppose any attempt to extend two-week school closure

 Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir speaking to the media about the latest coronavirus restrictions during a visit to Lurgan College, Co Armagh.
Rebecca Black and David Young, PA

Stormont’s education minister has vowed to oppose any move to extend school closures in Northern Ireland beyond two weeks.

DUP minister Peter Weir said lengthening the week-long Halloween mid-term break by a further week represented a “compromise” position within the Stormont Executive.

Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy said his party would have been prepared to back a longer closure but that they were “content” with the decision made by the Executive.

But Mr Murphy indicated that “further action” on schools could be required if the situation did not stabilise.

Mr Weir, who had previously voiced opposition to any suggestion of more closures, said the extra week off school would be viewed as an extended holiday and no remote learning would be required.

Schools across Northern Ireland will close on Monday, a week before the mid-term break, as part of a series of new restrictions to tackle soaring Covid-19 rates in the region.

They are due to reopen on Monday November 2.

“I don’t envisage it going beyond that,” Mr Weir said on a visit to Lurgan College in Co Armagh on Wednesday.

“I would oppose any attempt to move beyond that and we need to ensure that our children’s future through education is protected.”

Mr Weir said the extra week would be designated as a mix of optional and exceptional closure days – meaning teachers would be required to work. The minister said teachers should be working from home if possible.

Unlike during lockdown in the first wave of the pandemic, there would be no provision to accommodate vulnerable children or the children of key workers in the school settings during the week.

Direct payments would be made to pupils in receipt of free school meals during the week of October 19.

The minister insisted there had been little evidence that schools were significantly contributing to rising Covid-19 numbers. He said there had only been around 10 schools in the region where more than one coronavirus incident had been recorded.

But health officials are concerned about social contacts associated with schools, such as transportation and adults mingling at the gates.

“I think there’s been very little evidence that schools themselves have acted as spreaders,” Mr Weir said.

“In many ways schools have become the victim of other community transfer.”

Read More: Schools will be closed to all pupils including vulnerable children and children of key workers

The minister highlighted that Stormont’s health advisers had initially advocated a six-week closure of schools.

“With a compromise, you don’t get exactly what you want,” he said.

“But I think it (the added week) is something which there was a broad consensus on within the Executive.”

Earlier, Mr Murphy made it clear that his party would have supported a longer restriction if required.

He said health minister Robin Swann and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young had been prepared to accept the two-week closure during Tuesday night’s Executive.

“When the advice looked like they were looking for a longer period of time, we were prepared to support that,” he said at Stormont on Wednesday.

“Last night, the health minister and the scientific adviser made it clear that they were content to go with the two-week closure of schools and therefore we support them in that opinion.”

He added: “We are content to go with the two-week closure.

“Of course that will be kept under review and, if it requires further action, then the Executive are going to have to come back to that decision.”

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Northern Ireland news