Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland ‘faces circuit break lockdown' if schools spread not tackled

Teaching unions have expressed concerns at moves to relax mitigation measures in schools.
David Young, PA

Teaching unions have warned of the potential need for another circuit break lockdown in Northern Ireland if more is not done to stop Covid-19 spreading in schools.

Giving evidence to the Assembly’s Education Committee, union representatives expressed concern around various aspects of the official coronavirus guidance given to schools as the new academic year started.

Justin McCamphill from NASUWT accused Education Minister Michelle McIlveen of poor leadership and asked why several mitigations, such as classroom bubbling and self-isolation requirements, were being relaxed when the transmission of the virus remained so high in the community.

He said in the week prior to the start of the autumn term last year there were 421 Covid-19 cases recorded in Northern Ireland. In comparison, he said last week there were almost 11,000 in the region.

“Starting with over 10,000 cases a week in the community every school is going to be hit this week and I don’t think the enormity of that has sunk home that we’re now dealing with it almost being a certainty that every school will have transmission in school,” he told the committee.

“So we need to come at it from that point of view so therefore I think relaxing mitigations at this point is the wrong thing to do.

“We all want to get schools open but we want to keep them open. And if this gets out of control and our hospitals continue to struggle more, we’re going to end up with another circuit breaker type lockdown because there’ll be nothing else that we’ll be able to do.”

Asked by Sinn Fein committee member Pat Sheehan to describe the leadership given by the minister and department on the Covid-19 issue, Mr McCamphill replied: “I think it’s very poor.

“I am really disappointed whenever the Executive Office do discuss mitigations around schools that the minister is always on the side of reducing the mitigations that are there.”

Graham Gault of the National Association of Head Teachers challenged the logic of self-isolation guidance that allows children who have been in contact with a positive case to return into the school community if they test negative after two days.

Highlighting that it can take three or four days to develop symptoms of Covid-19, he questioned whether it was the intention of the Department of Education to allow Covid-19 to spread through schools.

“Parts in the guidance like that we actually just don’t understand, unless the agenda is just to have coronavirus spread through our schools,” he said.

“If that is the agenda, it will be very useful if the department can tell us that that’s what the agenda is, because our teachers and our school leaders are trying their best to keep our school communities safe but the guidance just raises questions as to what is actually behind some of the thinking.”

That suggestion was rejected by committee member and DUP party colleague of the education minister, Diane Dodds.

“I am concerned about the repeated allegation this morning that it is perhaps the minister or the department’s intention to have the virus spread through our schools,” she said.

“I do think that that is actually harmful and I’m absolutely sure that that is not the minister or the department’s intent and that the intent is to try to keep our children and our young people and our teaching staff as safe as they can possibly be in an unprecedented situation.”

Caroline McCarthy of the INTO union said the guidance did not reflect the urgency of the Covid-19 situation in schools.

“It doesn’t feel as I look at that guidance there is an awareness of what we know will potentially happen with this virus coming into the autumn and winter time and the expectation that it will have an impact,” she said.

“The guidance that has come from the department appears to imply that we are stepping down from Covid, rather than very much dealing with Covid.”

Union representatives also claimed the authorities were not doing enough to ensure proper ventilation in schools and concerns were raised that some risk assessments for pregnant staff members had yet to be carried out properly.

Mr Gault said school leaders were also being “overwhelmed” with the requirements of contact tracing following confirmed cases.

He said the task was diverting them from their core duties within the school community and called on the department to deploy dedicated contact tracing staff to each school to reduce the burden on principals.

“The scale of transmission and the sheer scale of contact tracing required by each individual school leader across this country is just enormous and I’m asking today if the minister, and government wider than just the minister, would look at redeploying a workforce from across the education sector to support principals in doing this,” he said.

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