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Covid NI: Angry exchanges over education support as minister accused of lack of pandemic planning

A motion accusing the Education Minister of a lack of planning to assist schools through the Covid pandemic has been passed by the NI Assembly after MLAs were recalled early from the Christmas recess.

That was despite Michelle McIlveen telling the Assembly “the safety and well-being of children is the top priority for me and my department and informs every decision I make”.

MLAs were back in the chamber early after support from a Sinn Fein petition from the SDLP and Alliance parties seeking to address the growing concerns over staff shortage and air filtration in schools as Covid cases continue to hamper the education system.

But there were angry exchanges after Robin Newton MLA labelled those supporting the motion as a ‘pan nationalist front’ and seeking to criticise the minister for political gain.

“Parents want to know that their children can go to school, that the schools will be open to the children and they want to know that the children will receive face-to-face education because of their education, because of their physical health and because of their mental health,” the East Belfast MLA said.

“The pan-nationalist front signing this motion - Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance - are the coordinating group. Rather than during the pandemic wanting to work with the minister, has sought to criticise, for political advantage, the minister.”

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That sparked an angry response from SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan.

“Just for the record, all children in Northern Ireland are affected. Don’t try to turn something as fundamental as children’s education into a sectarian bunfight,” the West Tyrone MLA replied.

“How dare anyone accuse me of signing a pan-nationalist motion. I don’t accept it.

“The SDLP has consistently warned of issues in schools. There has been no proper plan for staff shortages. Simply contacting retired teachers on the last day of term to bring them back to classrooms is not good enough.

“Children and teachers have been failed. I’m not here today to fire buns around the house but I have to say there has to be greater responsibility from those who have led for the last 15 years,” he added, pointing the finger at the lack of co-operation between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The Education Minister maintained that “no single measure is the magic bullet” and she outlined numerous mitigations which have been implemented in schools, including the wearing of face coverings and one-way systems.

Ms McIlveen said contingency plans were already in place.

“There is no magic tap of teachers and other staff to turn on,” she told MLAs and said her department is monitoring staffing levels closely.

“CCEA will ensure that grading in 2022 takes account of disruption experienced by learners and that they are not disadvantaged due to the pandemic,” she added.

“Should the public health situation change and public examinations have to be cancelled, I’ve agreed contingencies for alternative awarding arrangements. These will largely reflect the 2021 arrangements which worked quite smoothly.”

On ventilation and air filtration, Ms McIlveen said the scientific and public health advice is that “nothing is more effective than opening windows and doors”.

“This motion portrays air filters as the magic solution to ending Covid transmission in schools, which is over simplistic and in no way reflects the complexity of the issue,” she said.

“At a conservative estimate, it would cost around £40m to install air filters across 20,000 classrooms.

“If the evidence supports such investment, I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds to the Executive and the Minister of Finance, however I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money. We must follow the science.”

Backing his party colleague, Christopher Stalford MLA added: “Not one person who has spoken in favour of the motion has indicated the budgetary allocation that will be needed to implement it. It’s the height of irresponsibility and rank showboating from the SDLP and Sinn Féin.”

His party colleague, Mervyn Storey MLA, also reminded those who had supported the recall that they had rushed to get schools closed earlier in the pandemic and that “they simply can’t have it both ways”.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said it would be a mistake to think it can be “business as usual” for schools.

“I find that difficult to comprehend,” he said.

“There should be precautions and that requires leadership.”

Mr McGrath also criticised comments from the Finance Minister, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy, about not being able to grant money until it’s asked for.

“That cuts deep to the dysfunctionality in some places of the executive.”

TUV leader Jim Allister was scathing about the nature of the debate.

“It’s quite clear to me that this recall and this motion is and was a stunt, nothing more than that,” he said.

“The three parties who backed the motion, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance, are in the Executive.

“This is the Executive that they are now tearing apart. What we’re seeing is the dying months of the disintegration of this Executive.”

Concluding the debate, Sinn Féin MLA Nicola Brogan said the Assembly was “in agreement that we want to ensure schools stay open. The disagreement seems to be who is responsible for keeping schools safe. It is, of course, the Education Minister,” she said.

The motion passed, with support from the Ulster Unionist Party.

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