Covid-19: Strong case for full return to school by 8 March, says Peter Weir

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There is a "strong case" for all pupils in Northern Ireland to return to classrooms by 8 March, Education Minister Peter Weir has said.

He said he believed health officials at Stormont had been "over-cautious" in recommending a phased return.

On Monday his party leader First Minister Arlene Foster had called for the executive to revisit its plan.

Mr Weir said he wanted to see "movement across the board" in getting pupils back into classrooms more quickly.

Speaking in the assembly, Health Minister Robin Swann says he is not aware of any advice around the phased re-opening of schools having changed.

Earlier on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, Mr Weir said he had advocated a full return in his paper to executive colleagues last week but that health advisers preferred a staged approach, with year groups going back at different times.

The executive is due to meet on Thursday to discuss its "pathway-to-recovery" blueprint.

"Anything that I put forward has been examined and predates what's happening in England," said Mr Weir.

'Home-schooling is second best'

"Obviously we want to look at what's happening in other jurisdictions but I've indicated that my preferred option was to see everyone returned to school on the 8 March.

"Indications certainly at that stage were given by some of the health advisers that they felt taking that full step was premature, which is why the executive at least moved forward on the initial steps.

"However well parents are providing that home-schooling, however well that work is being done also by schools, in terms of remote learning, it can't be a subsidiary for face-to-face teaching, it is effectively a second best.

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image captionPeter Weir says he believes schools are "relatively safe" places

"With some of the emerging evidence we've seen this week in Scotland... I think there is a strong case that we need to prioritise the education of our young people and get them back as soon as possible."

Mr Weir said quick movement was particularly needed on issues around primary schools.

"We've got the immediate return of P1 to P3 - I don't see why there can't be immediate movement for the rest of primary schools," he said.

"The damage that is being done, both from an educational point of view but from a wider societal point of view in terms of issues around mental health and the long term future of our young people are also critical.

"There's nowhere that's entirely risk free but I think [schools] represent a relatively safe place."

This latest Stormont split over schools feels all too familiar.

On Thursday the executive said it had agreed a phased approach, even though DUP ministers had been advocating a quicker return.

But just a few days later we are witnessing more friction over the issue within the executive.

How Stormont handles this developing row will indicate what might come down the track with managing wider plans to exit lockdown.

Mrs Foster has said she wants the Stormont executive to "revisit" its discussion about the reopening date for schools in Northern Ireland.

She was speaking after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his lockdown exit plan, with 8 March set for the return all schoolchildren in England.

"Unfortunately our health advisors didn't think that that was the right way forward," she said.

"I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward but I hope that we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own experience the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom."

'Nothing has changed'

Deirdre O'Kane, the principal of St Patrick's and St Brigid's College in Claudy, County Londonderry, described Mr Weir's comments as "confusing and frustrating".

"Any change to announced plans for the return of school should be based on scientific evidence and the advice from health officials," she said.

Collin Torrens, the principal of Lisnagelvin Primary School in Londonderry, questioned why DUP ministers were pressing for a quicker return to the classroom for all pupils after the executive had agreed a plan last week.

"One minute it's not safe to go back and the next it is," he said.

"The sooner we get pupils back to school the better for everybody - that is what everyone wants - but only if it's safe."

Sinn Féin's education spokesperson Pat Sheehan said "nothing has changed since last Thursday".

"The [chief medical officer] told us last week that the reopening of schools completely would lead to a rise in the R number by between 0.3 and 0.7," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

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image captionSome schools are questioning the call to reconsider the return-to-classrooms date

"If the R rate at the minute is sitting around 0.75 - even if we only hit that lowest number it brings us back above one and we're back in the exact same situation again.

"It's disappointing that Arlene wants to go and make policy on the hoof in interviews on the TV last night."The only thing that has changed is that Boris Johnson has decided to make a decision for England.

"You would think by now that the DUP would have learned not to hitch their wagon to Boris."

The SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said he was disappointed to see a "rush to change" the phased-return strategy for schools.

"We cannot risk the progress we have made against Covid-19 by rushing to act," he added.

Teacher testing

There are no plans at present for school staff to be vaccinated in Northern Ireland, according to Mr Swann.

Responding to a question from DUP MLA William Irwin, the health minister said they would not be looking at specific occupations but would continue to follow Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) guidance which focuses on age and clinical profiles.

"I am aware piece of work JCVI looking at specific occupational cohorts that may be at more risk," he said.

"But as of yet we haven't received any further update and until I do receive further guidance I will be maintaining and sticking current guidance that we have to date because it has worked for us so far in regards where we see decrease in the number infections in our care homes, infections in society but also the decrease in the number of hospitalisations that we are also seeing."

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