Northern Ireland news

'No plans to shut schools early' says Department of Education

The National Association of Head Teachers has said there is not enough substitute teachers

THERE are "no current plans to shut schools early", the Department of Education said last night.

A spokesman also said the move had been confirmed by the Executive yesterday despite growing calls for schools to close early ahead of the Christmas holidays.

It comes amid continuing staff shortages due to Covid-related absences with more than 1,000 school staff across the north contracting the virus in the last four weeks.

One school principal in Co Down has already warned pupils and parents to prepare for part-time education in the new year due to escalating staff shortages.

Orla O'Neill, head teacher of St Malachy’s High School in Castlewellan, wrote to parents to tell them that if the situation does not improve, pupils could face time out of class next month.

She said it was "becoming a health and safety concern as the number of staff absent is increasing day by day" and said that one day earlier this week there were 15 teachers off, which "equates to a quarter of our teaching staff".

"Like all schools we have tried in earnest to secure substitute teachers to fill these positions to no avail," she said.

"We have on several occasions, contacted over 100 subs on a given day to try to secure cover."

She said that following discussions school leaders concluded they may have to go down the route of other schools and keep some year groups at home on certain days.

"We will be putting a plan in place in the new year. This is certainly not something we want to do and we have worked hard to avoid this so far this term but the situation is such that the measures we have in place are not sustainable with the current level of absence."

But a spokesperson for the Department of Education said "there are no current plans to shut schools early".

"This was confirmed by the Executive today (Thursday)," he said.

"Any decision to close schools would be taken by the Executive and be based on medical and scientific advice.

"We recognise that some schools are currently experiencing pressures with staffing availability and in some cases, have asked some pupils to learn remotely for a short period.

"We understand these challenges and that it is appropriate for those schools, as a last resort, to move some pupils to periods of remote learning for as short a period as possible.

"The department and employing authorities will continue to support schools and alleviate these pressures wherever possible."

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