Northern Ireland news

School reopening plan risks making children second class citizens, Education Minister Peter Weir says

Peter Weir said the north was an “outlier” compared with faster reopening plans in Britain and the Republic of Ireland
David Young, PA

Northern Ireland risks treating its children as second class citizens if it does not accelerate the pace of school reopening, Education Minister Peter Weir has warned.

Peter Weir said the north was an “outlier” compared with faster reopening plans in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Weir and his DUP colleagues are urging Stormont Executive colleagues to revisit a plan for primary school children in P1 to P3 to return on March 8.

Under the plan, unanimously agreed by the Executive last week, secondary school children in key exam years – years 12-14 – will return two weeks later.

On that date, P1 to P3 will revert to remote learning for another week. No date has been given for the return of the wider school population.

Last week, Mr Weir failed to get Executive backing for his proposal for a full return of schools on March 8.

He and DUP colleagues subsequently supported the phased reopening plan recommended by health officials.

However, the party is now pressing for a rethink after administrations in Britain and the Republic outlined plans for a quicker return.

The Executive is expected to discuss the matter again during its meeting today.

“I think that we need at least to make sure that we are not, in Northern Ireland, out of sync, creating our children being as second class citizens with everywhere else in these jurisdictions,” Mr Weir told BBC Radio Ulster.

He questioned why Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride was advocating a gradual return to class when his counterpart in England, Professor Chris Whitty, had backed the plan for all schools to return on March 8.

The minister said it appeared the CMOs were “going in completely diametrically opposed directions”.

“I think I want to get some level of answers from the chief medical officer and others as to why there is such a divergence of position, not simply a question of nuance, it seems to be taking very different directions,” he said.

“There is advice being given across a range of jurisdictions, and we seem to be very much the outlier in terms of that – that particularly where my concern would be.”

Dr McBride has insisted he is not at odds with other UK CMOs on his approach to schools reopening.

Earlier this week he defended his advocacy of a phased return to face-to-face learning, warning that a rush out of lockdown could trigger the worst wave of Covid yet.

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