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Principals defend decision to shut almost 100 schools after heavy snow

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Headmasters have defended the decision to close almost 100 schools yesterday because of the extreme wintry weather.

At least 95 primary and post-primary schools in rural parts of Northern Ireland were forced to shut their doors when treacherous road conditions prevented both staff and pupils getting to class. This left thousands of children missing out on a day of education.

Among the worst-affected areas were counties Down and Armagh where many minor roads were totally impassable after heavy snow falls.

“We would prefer to stay open, like any other school, but we have to take into account the health and safety of the children and staff,” said Kilkeel High School principal David Cunningham who closed his premises at lunchtime yesterday because of deteriorating weather conditions.

Around a third of his 731 pupils had made it in to school and Mr Cunningham said the decision to close had not been taken lightly.

He added: “There are health and safety issues on the roads and also in school when the children arrive, the pathway up to school could be treacherous, children are throwing snowballs, and if you have mobile classrooms that causes difficulties as well. It would only take one child to break their leg.”

Temperatures in Northern Ireland plummeted to record lows over the weekend and the province is expected to stay in the grip of the big freeze for up to two weeks.

There is a risk that temperatures could drop to minus 10C and last night forecasters were warning that western counties could expected to bear the brunt of the Arctic weather.

Niall McLean, principal at Castlewellan Primary School, which was also closed yesterday, said: “The roads were nearly impassable and very, very treacherous. I thought it was in the best interests of children and staff for health and safety reasons to, once again, close the school.”

Dominic Bradley, Stormont education committee member and MLA for Newry and Mourne, one of the worst-hit areas, said school closures only took place after careful consultation with transport authorities, The Department for Education and weather forecasters.

“Sometimes people have the impression that schools close at the first drop of a snowflake, but that’s not the case,” he said.

“Schools have to look at a number of circumstances when bad weather hits us.

“Sometimes it makes good sense for them to close the school because of the availability of teachers, as schools have to ensure that the pupils that are in the school can be properly supervised and have the means to be transported back again.”

Last night police were warning of severe disruption on the roads and urged motorists make only necessary journeys — particularly in rural parts.

Meanwhile, the Roads Service, has come under criticism once again.

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has hit out after dozens of routes in her constituency were left impassable yesterday.

“Many motorists and residents, particularly in the Castlewellan, Downpatrick and Mourne areas, have contacted me expressing concern that main roads have not been gritted,” she said.

“This is very alarming indeed given the dangers posed to drivers by the Arctic weather conditions and I will be asking Roads Minister Conor Murphy for a full breakdown of exactly what roads have been gritted and how frequently they are being treated in south Down.”

However, Colin Brown, Roads Service network manager, said they had used a sixth of their annual salt supply over the past week and claimed he was confident they had done their job properly.

“We have used 11,000 tonnes of salt across Northern Ireland. We know what we are doing and we know how long it takes to do it,” he said.

“The amount of snow that has fallen on top of salted roads has compounded the problems for drivers on the roads first thing.”

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