Early free school meal payments fuel speculation about extended Christmas holiday
THE early payment of free school meal grants in December is fuelling speculation that the Christmas break will be extended.
The executive has agreed to keep schools open and Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted there are no changes planned.
While the issue of closures has been discussed by ministers, it has been suggested that no one is pressing hard for an early holiday.
The north is one of the only regions in Europe where there have already been two periods of school closures.
Children across the north returned to classrooms full-time in September prolonged closures during lockdown.
Already, hundreds of schools have been affected by fresh cases. Some have sent home full classes or entire year groups while others have closed for a time.
The most recent statistics show there have 2,420 positive cases in schools since late August.
This week, two schools in Portadown were shut down after several cases.
It has been speculated that schools may close early for Christmas on December 11, with many people discussing this date on social media.
A line in a Department of Education press release issued late on Thursday further fuelled this.
In announcing a new School Holiday Food Grant scheme, it said the first payments would be made "from week beginning 14 December".
Schools are due to break up on December 23 and return on January 3.
Both the education and first ministers maintain there is no plan to close schools early.
First Minster Arlene Foster this week said schools had been a priority during the emergency.
"We are certainly not planning for early closure of schools," she said.
Education Minister Peter Weir dismissed the possibility that schools could close early for the holiday as a rumour.
The Irish News was told that while the December 14 date appeared on a government press release, this was mostly`procedural' so Education Authority staff could facilitate grant payments - much like employers paying staff early in December.
It was told it was unconnected to school closures.
"There are no plans to extend schools' Christmas holidays (or to start them early) as part of the overall package of interventions agreed by the NI Executive," Mr Weir said.
"It remains my firm belief that face to face teaching is the best form of education and our schools are the best place to provide this in a controlled and safe environment. My main priority is to guard children's education, mental health and well-being."
Meanwhile, thousands of pupils are due to sit GCSE science papers next week. The biology, chemistry and physics papers will be the first pupil exams since February.
New guidance states that young people will be permitted to wear face coverings during these exams, but it is not compulsory.
Schools have also been told that pupils' chairs should be at least 1.25m apart if they are sitting papers in their class bubble. If not, desks must be 2m apart.