Education Minister Peter Weir has been warned that prematurely reopening schools would be “catastrophic” to the rate of people contracting Covid-19, by a group representing British and Irish teaching unions.

In an open letter to the MLA, the British and Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU) has urged that “significant caution” should be used in any consideration of reopening schools.

In their letter the group warned of the “very real risk” of creating a spike in the transmission of the Covid -19 virus by a premature opening of schools. They also argued that to reopen schools before there is an established “test trace and isolate” regime in place would be “catastrophic” to the rate of infection. They went on to suggest that schools would not be able to reopen as normal and a phased, part-time return would be the most likely scenario.

It stated: “It is clear to all that schools can only reopen and operate safely if there are significant operational changes in place to ensure effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines linked to thorough cleansing practices, appropriate PPE available where required, and ongoing risk assessments in place to monitor operations.

“This will mean that as schools cannot reopen as normal, a phased return will be required and priorities established around attendance, which is likely to be part time for most pupils.”

The group went on to add that children from poor and challenged backgrounds and vulnerable children will “inevitably require significant additional support” as schools move slowly back to a more settled situation.

They continued: “We need to recognise, also, that potentially all children will have suffered a level of trauma as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and we would urge that the initial focus when schools reopen, in any capacity, should be on the health, well-being, and emotional resilience of our students.”

The letter went on to stress the importance of the Government “taking teachers with them” through their response to the crisis and sharing data that will inform future decisions.

They also asked that Government demonstrates a commitment to the health and safety of both students and staff, asking them to recognise that teachers and support staff may well have suffered stress and trauma as well as their pupils.

The group ended their letter by asking the Department to listen and respect their “collective expertise as practitioners by engaging meaningfully with their professional associations before arriving at decisions.”

It was signed by representatives of eleven teaching unions, including four of the five teaching unions in Northern Ireland – the UTU, INTO, NASUWT and NEU.

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