Covid-19: Schools in NI to remain shut until 8 March

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Most pupils in Northern Ireland will not return to school until Monday 8 March at the earliest, the Stormont Executive has agreed.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the ongoing public health situation meant remote learning must continue.

It may also be the case that only some year groups go back to school on 8 March, if a return then is possible.

Mrs Foster said she recognised it would come as a "disappointment" for many parents and pupils.

"The kitchen table is no substitute for the school desk," she said, giving details of the decision at a news conference in Dungannon.

"It is also important though that we give people a clear view of what is happening so we thought it was important to indicate today that we would not be back before 5 March in schools."

The recommendation had been made "relucantly" by Education Minister Peter Weir due to the ongoing public health situation.

Special schools remain open to all pupils, but only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers are able to attend mainstream nursery, primary and post-primary schools at present.

That means that about 9% of all pupils are in school, with the vast majority learning and being taught remotely.

It was originally planned that pupils could return to pre-school, primary and nursery schools following the half-term break in mid-February.

New variant 'more common'

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill described the decision as "difficult" but urged people to "stay the course".

"We wish we could be more certain about a definitive date, but we will keep it under review," she added.

The executive's next review of the lockdown restrictions is scheduled for 18 February.

Ms O'Neill said evidence that the new variant of coronavirus detected in Great Britain was "more common" in Northern Ireland had contributed to the executive's decision to extend remote learning.

Although the new variant was confirmed in a small number of cases before Christmas, Mrs Foster said latest estimates showed that "about 40 to 50%" of coronavirus cases in NI are now linked to the variant.

On Thursday, a further 13 coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Ireland were reported by the Department of Health, taking its total to 1,792.

A further 592 people have tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours.

There are 768 people being treated in hospital for Covid-19. Sixty-seven of them are intensive care and 57 patients are receiving ventilation.

Mrs Foster said Northern Ireland's R-number - or rate of infection of the virus - was continuing to fall, with the rate in the community currently sitting between 0.65 and 0.8.

But she warned that the number of Covid patients in intensive care units has doubled in the past month, reaching its highest-ever level this week.

Ms O'Neill said she was "encouraged" by the progress made in the vaccination programme, with 175,284 people in Northern Ireland now having received their first dose.

The online booking system for the 65-69 age group opened last night and vaccinations for those people will be available at regional centres.

On Thursday, the executive also discussed a proposal that staff in special schools should be prioritised for vaccination - but ministers have requested further work between officials take place on the issue.

If it is not possible for all pupils to return on 8 March, priority will be given to pupils in exam years, BBC News NI understands.

That would include pupils taking GCSEs, AS and A-level and BTecs - but it is not clear if it would also include Primary Six pupils who may want to sit the transfer test in the autumn.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said schools in England would not be able to reopen to all pupils after the February half-term, but could do so from 8 March.

On Thursday, another 47 Covid-19-related deaths were recorded in the Republic of Ireland, taking its total to 3,167.

The Irish health department also recorded another 1,466 confirmed cases of the virus.

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