Coronavirus: Volunteers requested to help NI schools stay open

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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Volunteers are being sought by the Department of Education (DE) to help schools stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools across NI are to remain open if possible to care for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

The education minister has appealed for volunteers to work alongside existing staff to keep schools open.

In a letter entitled “Covid-19: Our Schools Need You”, Peter Weir said volunteers could provide essential support to teaching and non-teaching staff.

“I am asking for your help, in a bid to assist our dedicated teaching staff and non-teaching staff in schools who are carrying out this vital role,” he said.

“The teaching and non-teaching workforce has already been assisting greatly, but we need more people who are willing and able to be of assistance, even if their normal school is not open, to offer their services.”

Fast-tracked clearance

Volunteers should not be pregnant, be over 70, have any symptoms like a cough or high temperature or have any long-term health conditions.

They have also been asked if they will be able to work at weekends or during the Easter holidays.

They will have to be cleared by Access NI before they can be deployed.

However, Mr Weir said that his department was working with the Department of Justice to fast-track Access NI clearance.

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Volunteers are being sought initially from those already working in the department, the Education Authority (EA), the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) or the Inspectorate.

The Department of Education also provided guidance about how a "hub" or “cluster school” should operate.

This is a school that would remain open in an area but care for pupils from a number of other schools too.

“A rota should be drawn up of available staff from all schools in the area and staff deployed based on the number of children requiring supervision,” the department said.

“Volunteers from the public sector, with appropriate vetting, will support the supervision of children in the cluster school on a rota basis and under the direction of staff from across the schools.”

Union's guidance

Principals and senior teachers from the area would be in charge of running the school, supported by the department.

The leadership team would decide how many children could attend safely, observing Public Health Agency (PHA) guidance on social distancing.

Nursery schools, voluntary playgroups, primary, post-primary and special schools could all be part of any arrangement.

In guidance to its members about the use of volunteers, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) commended those putting themselves forward.

However, they said it was up to a principal to decide who entered their school.

“We urge careful thought before accepting management responsibility for workers out with your own staff team,” the NAHT said.

“All decisions should be driven by safety considerations.”

The union – which represents many school leaders in Northern Ireland – also said that participation in hub schools would be voluntary and not compulsory.

The number of pupils attending schools since they were closed to the majority of children due to the coronavirus pandemic has so far been minimal.

According to figures from the department, fewer than 1,000 children attended schools in Northern Ireland at the end of last week.

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