Northern Ireland news

Schools are best place for children but they must be safe, union leaders say

A new poll reveals one in five schools in NI have had to close a class due to staff illness since half-term
Rebecca Black, PA

The best place for children is in school, but that “must be done safely”, teachers’ unions have said.

Representatives of the major unions expressed concerns around the transmission of Covid-19 in schools, while giving evidence to the Stormont Education Committee on Tuesday.

There have also been issues in schools with securing substitute teachers to cover colleagues when they are sick or having to self-isolate, they said.

The union representatives said qualified teachers from the wider education system should be redeployed into schools to alleviate the situation.

The Department of Education has said there are no plans to close schools early before Christmas, amid concerns about the spread of the virus.

Maxine Murphy Higgins, NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union, said her union believes the best place for children is in school, but said that “must be done safely”.

She said she wrote to Education Minister Michelle McIlveen on November 26 on behalf of the education unions, but has had no reply.

“We need to minimise the amount of spread there is of Covid within our schools presently,” she told MLAs.

“We are very concerned about the increased levels of Covid amongst our school community, both pupils and staff.

“We would ask that the Executive and the Department of Education give instructions that mass gatherings do not happen.

“Schools are being put under pressure by communities to have business as normal, but we know it’s not safe to do so.”

Graham Gault, from the National Association of Head Teachers, described the rates of Covid-19 transmission over the last four weeks as “shocking”, and criticised the way contact tracing is being carried out.

“The official figures show that for 10-14 year olds it is 1,672 positive cases per 100,000, for five to nine year olds 1,200 positives per 100,000 – these figures are really startling and just demonstrate what we’ve been panicking about for the last number of months, that we just have an environment in our schools that just seems to be conducive to the spread of this virus,” he said.

“Of course then we have the staffing crisis, we would ask again that the minister look at redeploying, temporarily, as a matter of urgency, from across the system, qualified teachers.

“There are plenty we believe in the Education Authority, in CCEA, in ETI and elsewhere who could be, for a very short-term period, used to help schools manage their way through this very difficult crisis.”

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