Education minister changes plans for reopening of NI schools due to increasing cases of COVID-19
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In a statement, the Department of Education says that from next Monday (4 January):
“Primary school pupils will be taught remotely until 11 January, after which they will attend school for face to face teaching.
“Post-primary pupils will also be taught remotely during the first week of January.
“From Monday 11 January pupils in years 8 to 11 will continue to be taught remotely until the end of January while pupils in years 12 to 14 will attend school for face-to-face teaching;
“Childcare settings including those attached to schools, pre-school facilities, nurseries and special schools to be open as usual;
“Exams due to take place in January will be facilitated compliant with public health guidance and schools will have flexibility to deliver face-to-face teaching to pupils due to sit those exams, should they wish to do so;
“Schools will accommodate vulnerable children and the children of key workers from the start of term.
“The first day of the normal school term can be used to prepare for the rest of the week.”
The statement adds that Youth Service provision will be stood down with targeted services moving online until the end of January.
The Minister said: “The Department of Education, the Department of Health, the Education Authority and the Public Health Agency have worked closely throughout the pandemic to maintain the education of children, to reduce the risk of outbreaks and to respond when these occur. This work has continued in recent weeks and the proposed way forward has been informed by the evidence and the advice provided. The common aim has been to keep schools safe, prioritise children’s education and ensure any impact on overall transmission is as low as possible, while accepting that schools reopening as normal is not sustainable.
“While previous arrangements have been informed by the advice of the Department of Health, unfortunately the deteriorating nature of the epidemic and the risks to public health has necessitated more substantial changes.
“Therefore, having considered the advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor and following discussions with them, I have decided that all primary and post-primary pupils will be taught remotely for the first week of term. Special schools and childcare provision will, however, remain open.
“All schools must provide supervised learning for vulnerable children and key workers’ children.
“I must stress that these decisions are not made lightly as I know the negative impact on children’s learning and mental health and well-being of not being in school. However, particularly after unprecedented levels of positive Covid-19 tests since Christmas, and the pressure this applies to our health service, it is critical that we all must consider the public health and scientific advice as we look forward to brighter days ahead.”
Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan had said the Education Minister’s decision to delay the reopening of schools for at least a week is the right one given the current circumstances.
The party’s education spokesperson said: “It is important this time is used wisely to develop contingency planning to ensure preparedness for every eventuality.
“Given the increased risk of transmissibility from the new variant of the virus it is essential the minister works in partnership with school communities and health authorities to ensure the safety of our school staff, pupils and their families.
“The course of the pandemic is increasingly unpredictable and we are in a dangerous situation. It is not possible to know where we will be the week of the 11th in terms of the public health situation so it is crucial the minister uses this extra week to plan for every scenario.
“This may involve bringing forward and expanding plans for remote learning.
“We need to see the minister work with colleagues in health and the PHA to enhance the system of track and trace in schools and to relieve this burden from principals.
“It is also important that in the event of scientific advice recommending further school closures that provision is put in place for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
“The Minister must act urgently to cancel transfer testing due to take place in the coming weeks and look at alternative arrangements for post primary transfer.
“He must also provide urgent clarity to GCSE students who are also scheduled to take exams in January.
“Our priority in the time ahead must be to ensure the safety of our school communities and the continuity of learning for our children and young people.”
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