NI’s Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has responded to an Assembly motion on keeping schools “open and safe” during the continuing COVID 19 pandemic. The motion accused the Minister of a lack of planning for the post-Christmas period in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the virus.
The Minister responded by saying that a “COVID Guidance Framework” had been put in place before the beginning of term and that existing mitigations – including hand hygiene, face coverings, vaccinations and consistent school groups – followed Department of Health advice.
The Minister said: “At the Health Committee last week, the Chief Medical Officer advised “it is really important that there is a doubling down of the baseline mitigations that Northern Ireland schools, DE and EA have maintained throughout the pandemic…..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.”
Ms McIlveen addressed the issue of ventilation and air filtration: “All the scientific and public health advice stresses natural ventilation. Nothing is more effective than opening windows and doors.” She said that evidence around air filtration devices was currently “inconclusive” but continued: “At a conservative estimate, it would cost around £40 million pounds to install them across 20,000 classrooms. If the evidence supports such investment, I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds to the Executive and the Minister of Finance.”
She added that £2 million was being invested in improving natural ventilation in schools where needed. Schools who identify rooms with poor ventilation can contact the Education Authority. 16 schools have been visited by the EA so far, with air cleaning units installed where needed.
Addressing staffing shortages, the Minister said that over 100 retired teachers had responded to a call to return to teaching in order to ease pressure. Ms McIlveen said most final year student teachers were already lined up for teaching placements in schools between now and early April.
Usually, student teachers must be supervised, however the Minister said that “where students are willing and school principals assess it to be appropriate, final year students might operate for extended periods in any day without direct supervision”, estimating this could see up to 550 teachers freed up to be redeployed within schools.
She also said that additional resources and support around remote learning has been made available to schools, but that “75% of schools responding to the remote learning survey did not have to use remote learning at all last week and provided full timetables.”
With regards to exams, the Minister said “All of our young people will be enabled to complete their qualifications and progress to the next phase of education, employment or training.” She outlined contingency measures agreed with exam body CCEA to ensure grading takes account of the ongoing disruption to learning. There will be “contingencies for alternative awarding arrangements” if exams are cancelled.”