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Coronavirus: Schools reopen in NI with new Covid safety measures

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media captionThere's a critical role for parents to play - education minister

Schools have reopened after an extended half-term break.

They closed on 19 October as part of tighter Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the Northern Ireland Executive.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, extra safety measures will be in place, including the mandatory wearing of face coverings for post-primary pupils on school transport.

The education minister said on Monday he is "not envisaging exams being cancelled".

"It is particularly important that we have compatibility and portability with the rest of the United Kingdom," he said during a visit to Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor, County Down.

"This is not something we can go on a solo run because particularly when it comes to universities and jobs, our students are going to be competing with those from different parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere."

He said his department had asked CCEA to look at "contingency arrangements" and said it was likely there would be "a range of mitigations, some of which have been announced already."

Exams have been scheduled for one week later than normal in 2021.

Mr Weir again stressed that keeping schools open remained his key priority and urged people not to congregate at school gates when dropping off pupils.

But he said parents and carers "are at the heart of fighting the virus and minimising any disruption to education".

image captionPeter Weir said that transmission of the virus in schools remains low

He asked parents and carers to practise social distancing, wear a mask and try to avoid going beyond the school gate unless an appointment has been made.

As for pupils, he asked them to have face coverings with them at all times, practise good hand hygiene and not to eat or share food on transport.

"I know from speaking to parents, carers and teachers that they want their children to be in school," the education minister said.

"Face to face teaching is the best form of educational provision."

Mr Weir said he understood there may be concerns over children's wellbeing during the pandemic.

"Children and young people have missed so much this year already, not just in terms of learning but in socialising with their friends, taking part in sports and other activities," he said.

"I know that the overwhelming desire of parents and carers is to maintain a full return to school and I thank them for all the sacrifices they are making in very difficult circumstances."

Caroline McCarthy, from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, said teachers are feeling anxious and concerned about the return to school.

"Protecting children's education actually goes hand in hand with protecting the staff in schools," she told BBC News NI's Good Morning Ulster.

"When we closed for the extended Halloween break for the children, some some schools were suffering serious staff shortages and I think the anxiety of staff within schools has to be acknowledged as well."

Ms McCarthy also called for the wearing of masks to be extended to the school environment in post-primary schools.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she agreed with her party colleague Peter Weir that school was "the best place for our young people to be".

"We said they would be back at school by the 2nd of November and they are," she told Good Morning Ulster.

"I, of course, understand the concerns that I hear from some of the teachers unions, however, it is very important for our young people that they are back at school."

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Covid-19 cases in schools

  • 2,030Positive Covid cases in schools

  • 519Schools with at least one positive Covid case out of 1,035 total schools

  • 302Schools with a single positive case

  • 237Schools with a cluster of two to five cases

  • 69Schools with a cluster of more than five cases

Source: Public Health Agency

There have been confirmed Covid-19 cases in half of Northern Ireland's schools since the start of term, according to the Public Health Agency.

According to Department of Education (DE) attendance guidance issued to schools, pupils are to be marked absent using code eight if they are "advised not to attend school following advice from PHA Contact Tracing Service".

Code eight can also be used if "a pupil chooses not to attend school or parent chooses not to send their child to school on the advice of a medical professional as the child is self-isolating due to a significant underlying medical condition".

Using code eight is "important to identify the number of pupils choosing to self-isolate due to Covid-19", the DE guidance to schools said.

Pupils self-isolating at home are still expected to complete work provided by their school or be taught remotely.

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  • Covid-19 confirmed cases in half of Northern Ireland schools