Education Minister Peter Weir today made a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly on the resumption of schools following the Christmas break and potential further actions to be taken within the education sector to limit the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.
In the statement he said: “Myself, my Department and indeed the whole Executive has sought to prioritise the future of our young people, and in particular their education, in consideration of any measures or restrictions that were being considered. That is why the Executive agreed to a full return to school with mitigations, as soon as it was safe to do so, and why the Executive has supported a range of measures to support people both academically and in terms of mental health and wellbeing.
“It is also why the Executive, when considering the range of very severe but necessary restrictions in the current circumstances, did not seek to close schools, but instead acknowledged that options needed to be developed that both protected the education and safety of our children while also combating the virus.
“When examining any interventions than could be made in our schools, two things rapidly became very clear. Firstly, that there was a need to give swift clarity, particularly around the commencement of the new term in 2021, to our Principals, to our teachers and educational staff, to our parents and most of all to our pupils. Secondly, that there was no potential intervention involving either temporary school closures or removal of face-to-face teaching for some or all of our students which was not damaging to them. That is why such an intervention should only be taken with extreme reluctance and as a last resort. I am also very cognisant of the many young people who have prepared for exams in January, including over 25,000 taking GCSEs, and the need to enable them to sit these exams. This would of course be subject to the need for any exam location and logistics being compliant, without compromise, with public health guidance and regulations.
“I must also have regard to the thousands of vulnerable children we have in Northern Ireland. I would ask everyone to reflect on the effect that whole scale school closures could have on those children in Special Schools with particular learning difficulties and specialist needs. I must also consider the children already on the child protection register, those ‘known to social services’ whose COVID experience has been extremely traumatic. For these children school is a safe environment and a place where they find reassurance.
“However let me make this abundantly clear. The basis on which schools will return in January will not be on the basis of a return as normal. I agree with the Health Minister that matters cannot be ‘as normal'”.
A package of measures which can be implemented in early January are as follows:
- Extension of the use of face coverings within post primary schools.
- How compliance on face coverings and safety measures can be increased on school transport.
- How we can dramatically improve behaviour drop off and collection of students around the school gates.
- Building on the current pilot scheme in Limavady, working alongside our colleagues in Health, exploring how we can begin to further roll out test and trace capacity within schools.
- How messaging can be improved to our young people to increase responsible behaviour and safety in connection with the pandemic.
The Minister concluded: “This list is not exhaustive and I will embrace any practical suggestion which both further combats potential spread of the virus and protects our children’s education.
“Schools must also be given the time to prepare for any change. Therefore at this time and dependent upon the public health situation, I am proposing that remote learning would need to be brought in for post primaries for the non-exam year students with effect from 25 January, on a temporary basis until the end of half term. We need to protect our most vulnerable students, and so irrespective of year group, the aim will be to keep Special Schools open throughout this period, and to provide provision within all schools for vulnerable children. That is the best way to protect both society and the future of our young people.”