Northern Ireland news

School closures due to `abandoning' social distancing, union claims

All schools are to be closed for a second time

SHUTTING schools for a second time was an inevitable consequence of abandoning social distancing, it has been claimed.

All schools are being given an extended Halloween break, closing from October 19 until November 2.

The situation will be reviewed after two weeks.

Universities and further education colleges will also deliver distance learning "to the maximum extent possible".

They will only offer face-to-face learning where it is an unavoidable part of the course.

First Minister Arlene Foster told the assembly that the aim was to keep the closure period to an "absolute minimum".

It is to be broken down into one full week in which everyone will be off. The second week will include three exceptional closure days, in which staff will be working, and two `optional days'.

It will be for principals to decide what to do on these optional days.

Some may choose to ask children to take part in remote learning.

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

All non-teaching staff will be paid as normal.

A growing number of schools are being affected by the spike in Covid cases.

However, there has been limited transmission in school settings. Fewer than 10 have reported two or more incidences.

There remain issues around people gathering at school gates and transport, the assembly was told.

While scientists voiced support for a lockdown, some ministers initially appeared opposed.

British Prime Minster Boris Johnson has said it is a "national priority" to keep children in the classroom, while the Republic's health minister Stephen Donnelly also ruled out a longer mid-term break.

He said the evidence was that schools were not contributing to a rise in virus numbers.

Stormont education minister Peter Weir this week said closing schools for a longer half-term would be unhelpful.

Yesterday, he said education was a small part of a wider package of societal response.

"Schools remain a safe environment for children and staff," he said.

"Schools are closed to all pupils. Principals should only bring staff into school during optional and exceptional closure days where they are unable to work from home.

"As this is an extension of the half-term break, it is not intended to be used for remote learning."

He told The Irish News that schools would not be prevented from providing remote learning if they chose to, however.

"It is not uncommon for schools, even during half term, to give pupils work to do at home. We can't prevent it if schools wish to do so," he said.

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said it had been reported that both the chief medical and scientific officers recommended a four-week closure.

"The executive need to publish this advice and the rationale for not following this course of action," he said.

The union's Northern Ireland official, Justin McCamphill, claimed people were now witnessing the inevitable consequence of a decision to abandon social distancing in schools in favour of 'bubbles'.

"The NASUWT warned in August that the executive should not have changed the plan of the 19th June which would have allowed for a phased and controlled reopening of schools," he said.

"School leaders and teachers have done their best, but it is an impossible task. Almost every school has been impacted by positive cases and the need to self-isolate.

"Schools are regularly sending home whole year groups for two-week periods while some schools have lost up to half their permanent teachers. Schools are closing for pupils but in a haphazard and uncontrolled manner."

Ulster Teachers' Union general secretary Jacquie White said extending the Halloween break would allow principals and teachers to re-group.

"We appreciate that the decision taken by the executive will have some implications for the structure of the school year moving forward and we will be addressing these issues with the relevant employing authorities in the coming days," she said.

"We cannot, however, risk schools contributing to or even being suspected of contributing to the spread of the virus as we approach the height of the winter season."

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