Northern Ireland news

Assembly recalled over school Covid absences

When children are off school as a close contact, they have to take a PCR test on day two of their absence. If it is negative and they have no symptoms they are allowed to return to school but have to take another PCR test on the eighth day after contact

The Stormont Assembly has been recalled amid growing concerns over the number of children who are currently absent from school because they are self-isolating due to close contact with a positive Covid case.

Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan had submitted a petition to recall the Assembly, and having received the signature of 30 MLAs, a letter from Speaker Alex Maskey has confirmed it will meet on Thursday.

MLAs will call on the Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, to “develop clear and robust guidance” for school staff.

The principal of Larne High School, Stephen Reid, reported yesterday that more than half of his pupils have been told to stay at home.

When children are off school as a close contact, they have to take a PCR test on day two of their absence. If it is negative and they have no symptoms they are allowed to return to school but have to take another PCR test on the eighth day after contact.

There have been reports of long queues at some Covid testing centres, with some facilities struggling to accommodate the number of students requiring a test to return to school.

MLAs will debate a motion expressing “significant concern with increasing reports of pupil absences due to the Covid-19 situation in our schools”.

The motion says the situation “has been worsened by the failure of the Minister of Education to develop clear and robust guidance for our school staff”.

It “calls on the Minister of Education to work urgently with the Public Health Agency to issue guidance which is cognisant of the unique circumstances of the school setting in the context of Covid-19”.

Read more: Immediate roll-out of Covid vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds a 'no brainer', says Prof Gabriel Scally (premium)

SDLP Education Spokesperson Daniel McCrossan has said schools in the North have been plunged into crisis as a result of DUP Education Minister Michelle McIlveen’s lack of preparation around Covid-19.

The west Tyrone MLA said: “The pandemic has been going on for a year and a half and the Department of Education and DUP Minister McIlveen appear to have learnt nothing from the experience and the failings of her predecessor Peter Weir. They have trailed their feet from the outset and have not taken the situation seriously enough when it comes to ensuring our children get the education they need.

“I have been inundated by school principals complaining about the current guidance, it’s not fit for purpose and resulted in them and their staff spending countless hours focused on contact tracing and other Covid-related issues instead of education. The DUP Minister needs to listen to schools and their challenges on the ground.

“We have consistently warned the Department of Education and the Education Authority about the need to have proper safety measures in place. They had all summer to prepare and yet here we are one week into term with our schools already at breaking point. Coronavirus cases have been on the rise and there was always going to be a spike when schools reopened, yet nothing has been done. This isn’t a situation that has come out of the blue." 

Earlier today, First Minister Paul Givan suggested that a faster form of Covid testing could be used to allow children who are self-isolating to return to school,

Mr Givan said school principals are facing “huge pressure”.

He told the BBC: “They have the additional responsibility of managing a track and trace system. When I look at what is happening in Scotland there are dedicated centres that do that, it isn’t the requirement of principals.

“At the Executive yesterday, I was asking what is the Public Health Agency doing to provide simple information to be accessible at all times and what resources are being put in to those schools that are being overwhelmed so that principals, who have a huge job of work to do just to deliver an education system, are going to have that burden lifted from them.

“Schools ultimately have been asked to follow a self-isolation policy which every political party in the Executive supported.”

He added: “We need to be considering other options. Do we need to have PCR tests? Because there is huge demand now on getting those slots. Could we go back to a system of lateral flow testing? That is acceptable to access football matches and other facilities.

“Can that be something that is easily accessible and carried out at home by parents?

“In England and Wales there is no policy on track and trace and a self-isolation process; only if a child is unwell are they asked to stay at home. I think for the Executive on Thursday I’ll be wanting to have an update from the Department of Health.

“If the system can’t cope with the current policy, then I think the Executive needs to be considering all of the options because we need our children in school.”

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