There is limited evidence of the effectiveness of air filtration systems stemming the spread of Covid-19 in schools, the Stormont Education Minister has said.
Michelle McIlveen defended her department’s handling of the pandemic during a recall of the Assembly on Monday.
The plenary came following a recall motion submitted by Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan, which was backed by the SDLP and Alliance Party.
Mr Sheehan accused Ms McIlveen of “dithering”, and described the recall as a “voice for school staff, parents and to students to express their frustrations at the way things have been handled in our schools to date”.
He added: “This is also about accountability and this Assembly holding this minister to account.”
Mr Sheehan speaking in the Assembly during today's debate:
The issues raised by Mr Sheehan were staff shortages due to Covid-19, ventilation systems, contingency plans for exams, and contact tracing.
“I accept there is no silver bullet or panacea but what I will argue is there needs to be a combination of measures – a range of issues that can be introduced in our schools,” he told MLAs.
“Two years into this pandemic, (Ms McIlveen) has no plan, she has made no proposals, she has brought nothing to the Executive, and she has not asked for money for air filtration systems,” he said.
“That’s her responsibility as Education Minister and she has totally failed this basic test.
“Opening windows in classes isn’t going to cut it. While our children are shivering in their classrooms, the minister is dithering in the department. It’s time for action, it’s time for action now.”
However, Ms McIlveen said the motion “represents quick fixes, easy headlines, and the worst form of politics”.
“There is no magic one thing that can be put in place in schools other than a continued focus on all those things that work,” she said.
Ms McIlveen speaking during the debate:
Addressing the issue of air filtration systems, Ms McIlveen said they are not the “magic solution to ending Covid-19 transmission in schools”.
“At a conservative estimate, it would cost around £40 million to install them across 20,000 classrooms. If the evidence supports such investments I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds for the Executive and the Minister of Finance. However I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money,” she said.
Ms McIlveen said she is investing £2 million this year on ventilation works, including replacing old and defective windows, Co2 monitors, and an initial 100 air filtration units.
She said action has been taken on workforce shortages, such as asking recently retired teachers to return, which has resulted in more than 100 putting their name on the substitute teachers’ register.
The minister said she has also asked education bodies to identify qualified teachers who could be deployed, and spoken with higher education institutions around final year student teachers playing more of a role.
Meanwhile, Ms McIlveen said performance reviews and teacher appraisals will be paused this academic year, while schools inspections remain paused.
Arrangements for key stage assessments have been suspended, and Ms McIlveen is working with exams body CCEA to ensure grading in 2022 at GCSE and A-level allows for the disruption to learning.
She also said detailed contingency plans for public exams are in place.
There were stormy exchanges earlier in the Monday afternoon’s debate, which saw Mr Sheehan’s motion passed following an oral vote.
DUP MLA Robin Newton claimed the recall of the Assembly was a political stunt.
He slammed “negative motion after negative motion” and “cynical motion after cynical motion attacking the minister”.
“Parents and teachers deserve better than political posturing like recalling the Assembly for what is little more than a political stunt,” he said.
“I’m sure the minister will spend wisely any money allocated by the Finance Minister and this pan-nationalist front signing this motion.
“Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance are the co-ordinating group (who) – rather than during the pandemic wanting to work with the minister – have sought to criticise, for political advantage, Minister McIlveen or Minister (Peter) Weir.
“A health crisis deserves a better response.”
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan took exception to being accused of signing a “pan-nationalist motion”.
“All children in Northern Ireland are affected, all teachers, all schools. (It) doesn’t matter what walk of life, so don’t try and turn something as fundamental as children’s education into a sectarian argument or bunfight, because that is not what this is.
“This is about children’s education and protecting them,” he said.