Coronavirus: Weir wants P1-P3 children to stay in class

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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media captionCovid-19 and schools: Pupils 'looking forward to playing with friends'

Education Minister Peter Weir is to bring forward a proposal to scrap the plan to pull P1-P3 children back out of classes on 22 March.

NI's youngest pupils returned to school on Monday for the first time since before the Christmas break.

Children in primary one to primary three (aged four to seven) and those in nursery and pre-school went back to class.

The plan is that they will then return to remote learning on 22 March.

However, Mr Weir said this does not make "enormous sense" and he will bring a specific proposal to the executive for those year groups to continue in the classroom.

"I think we need to see continuity of learning," he said.

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image captionThe return to the classroom was sweet for Braniel primary school children

On Monday a further two coronavirus-linked deaths and 144 new cases were reported by the Department of Health.

It brings the death toll recorded by the department to 2,077.

There are 220 inpatients being treated for coronavirus in Northern Ireland hospitals and 35 people in ICU, 25 of whom are ventilated.

As of Monday, 631,654 Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in Northern Ireland, of which 588,803 were first doses and 42,851 were second doses.

Meanwhile no further coronavirus-linked deaths have been recorded in the Republic of Ireland.

As of Monday, the country's death toll remains at 4,422. A further 437 new cases were reported.

There are 418 patients currently being treated for Covid-19 in the Republic, 103 of which are in ICU.

Only special schools in Northern Ireland have remained open to all pupils since the start of term in January.

Vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers have also been able to attend school and can keep doing so.

That has meant about 90% of Northern Ireland's 350,000 children have been learning remotely for more than two months.

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image captionEducation Minister Peter Weir visiting Springfield Primary School in west Belfast on Monday

The executive has decided that the youngest pupils should return to school first.

It is then planned that they will resume remote learning on 22 March to enable the return of post-primary pupils in years 12 to 14 until the start of the Easter holidays.

However, that has been criticised by some primary school principals and the executive is expected to decide this week whether children in primaries one to three can remain in school until the Easter break.

"I'll be bringing proposals forward [to the executive] which will say actually particularly for P1 to P3, they should carry on throughout and I think we don't want to see any more disruption to our young people's education," said Mr Weir.

He said health officials would need to consider this proposal and his suggestion that other primary school year groups - P4-P7 - also return to classes this month.

He said there was "no substitute for children being directly in school themselves on a face-to-face basis".

Pupils in primaries four to seven and years eight to 11 in post-primaries do not yet know when they will return to school.

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image captionBalloons, music and free ice cream greeted children on their return to Braniel school in east Belfast

Speaking to the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, Mr Weir said the return was a "significant step" and his main aim was for all pupils to be back in the classroom.

"A couple of weeks ago when we took the initial decisions it was probably quite a precautionary mood," Mr Weir said.

"I want to see that moving as quickly as can be safely accommodated.

"I want to see the P1 to P3s remaining in school throughout and I want to see an early return for the remainder of primary and also the remainder of secondary school pupils."

The minister said he could not guarantee that this would happen but he would be acting as a "persuader" with the executive.

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image captionIt was a thumbs up for a return to the classroom in east Belfast

The minister said he was also working alongside health experts to examine how Covid-19 testing might work in schools and he confirmed that face coverings would also be worn.

"It's not necessarily ideal but all these things are about a balance," Mr Weir said.

Schools have also been told that breakfast clubs, education visits, inter-school sports and after-school activities should not take place until at least after Easter.

"The vision is for a balanced day where children are able to play, are ready to learn and feel able to re-connect," the DE guidance said.

However, schools are expected to continue to keep pupils in class 'bubbles' to limit children from different classes mixing.

Some pupils in Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland have already gone back to the classroom as part of a phased return to school.

Schools in England are reopening to all pupils on Monday.

That will be accompanied by mass rapid Covid testing in post-primary schools, although the tests for pupils are voluntary and need parents' permission.

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image captionSticking to the school rules on the first day back at Braniel school

From Monday, there are also some slight changes to Northern Ireland's rules on click-and-collect for non-essential retail.

Clothing and footwear, baby equipment and electrical goods shops can all restart their contactless services, in line with public health advice.

The number of people allowed to meet outdoors in a public space has now also increased to 10 people from two households.

The executive will formally review the coronavirus restrictions again next week.

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