Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Guidance for NI schools' reopening published

child sits at school desk Image copyright Jacob King/PA Wire

Education Minister Peter Weir has published new guidance setting out how schools should plan to reopen.

The New School Day guidance has been designed by the Department of Education, school leaders and partners.

Among the plans is a possible "no bell" strategy with flexible class times to cut pupil flow in busier schools.

On Thursday, Mr Weir announced that the 2m social distancing rule would be reduced to 1m between pupils, when schools reopen in September.

The minister said this was to allow "full classes" to attend school as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Guidance issued on Friday suggests:

  • There will be an element of part-time learning due to limitations - such as small classrooms - in some schools
  • Primary school pupils should be in school for at least two days a week
  • Post-primary schools might be able to return to full-time education if they implement a so-called bubble model
  • Post-primary schools that can't do that should have pupils in school at least half the time
  • Secondary schools are urged to consider a new model whereby the teacher would move between classes, not the children.
  • Children will be prevented from bringing items such as bags into the school setting and taking items out of school at the end of day.
  • Pupils will be asked to wash their hands on arrival at schools and at regular intervals throughout the day.
  • Consideration to a "no bell" strategy to allow flexibility on class start/finish times and avoid "the intensity of (pupil) flow"
  • Further specific guidance for special and early years schools is being developed

Mr Weir said his ambition remained for all pupils to resume classroom-based learning "as soon as it is safely possible to do so". He told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme the direct threat to young people from coronavirus was extremely low, while their continued absence from school was damaging.

He said he appreciated the stresses felt by teachers, parents and pupils during a time of disruption and uncertainty.

Image copyright Dept Education
Image caption A diagram showing a classroom with 26 pupils

"Although our overall approach to managing the Covid-19 virus must rightly remain cautious, today is a positive step forward in providing a road map to plan for the reopening of schools in two months' time," he said.

Sleepless nights over space

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said expectations needed to be managed about the reopening of schools.

Its vice president, Graham Gault, said comments by First Minister Arlene Foster on Thursday - that the executive wanted "to get everybody back to school in September" - were unrealistic and undeliverable.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Graham Gault said he did not have the teaching staff to take pupils to neighbouring non-school buildings

Mr Gault the principal of Maghaberry Primary School, said this would need "very drastic changes", as even with the 1m distancing rule his classrooms would only be able to cater for 15 pupils at one time rather than the usual 30.

Although great progress had been made in talks between trade unions and the education department on how to manage school numbers safely, Mr Gault rejected the first minister's suggestion that schools should use extra spaces, such as assembly and dining halls, for teaching - saying these comments "stopped (him) from sleeping last night".

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish government was looking carefully at Northern Ireland's decision to reduce physical distancing in schools, saying she had been advised 2m distancing was required to inhibit the spread of coronavirus.

The Scottish government's current plan is for all schools to reopen on 11 August, but with elements of remote learning.

Analysis:

By Robbie Meredith, BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Many pupils in only part-time, and staggered start and finishes to the school day.

One way corridors, small group 'bubbles, maybe even no schoolbags or school bells.

When children return in September their experience of school is set to be very different.

But the Department of Education wants to get as many pupils as possible back in class for as much time as possible, an aspiration shared by school leaders and their staff.

The guidance will help, but many difficult decisions will still be left at the door of principals.

Some schools may be able to get all pupils in full-time, but many won't and that will lead to headaches for parents.

And specific guidance on the complex tasks of opening special schools - and how to provide school meals and school transport - has yet to be published.

Julie Thomas, principal of Clandeboye Primary School in Bangor, welcomed the reduction in the social distancing guidelines but said it was important not to over-promise parents what schools might be able to deliver in the new academic year.

Methodist College Belfast Principal Scott Naismith echoed that sentiment, saying Mr Weir had been overly optimistic.

While favourable pupil-staff ratios and accommodation meant Methody's preparatory school could get all the pupils back full-time from August, complexities in the senior school meant only half its pupils could be safely accommodated at one time.

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