All school pupils are on course to be back in the classroom immediately after Easter.
While no indicative dates were revealed as the Executive published its roadmap out of the latest lockdown, it states that there would be a full return to school in step three of the five step programme.
With P1-P3 due to return on March 8, and Years 12-14 on March 22, the door is now open for the remaining pupils across the board to move back to face to face learning once the Easter holidays are over.
First Minister Arlene Foster said she hopes to be in a position to confirm a return date for the remaining pupils when the Executive next meets to discuss lockdown restrictions on March 16.
“As a party we wanted to give clarity to parents, young people and teachers before now,” she said.
“Of course we are in a coalition and we have to seek consensus.
“We’re in a position now where P1 to P3 return next week. Years 12-14 on March 22. I very much hope that when we come to talk about this matter again on March 16 that we can give clarity for the rest of the school years so that they will know when they are coming back.
“I hope, given all of the data that’s there, that it will mean everybody can return after Easter. We’ll not be able to take that decision until we review what’s happening on March 16.”
Step Two of the Executive roadmap is due to start on March 8 with the return of P1-P3 to classrooms, with remote and online learning remaining an option. It would also see a return to practical face-to-face learning for Further Education students and apprentices.
The Executive hopes that the education sector can move to step three at the end of the Easter holidays.
That would see a full return of schools and a resumption of extended school activities.
Step four would see inter-school sport resume, increased face-to-face teaching for Higher and Further Education students, and apprentices, with school clubs, FE colleges and university student extra-curricular and support activities and youth services resuming.
By step five FE colleges and universities would begin moving towards more face-to face teaching and spectators would be allowed at school sports and performance events.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that while it remains a cautious approach to ending restrictions, she would “expect to see a full return of schools “on the other side of Easter”.
“That’s obviously providing that the transmission of the virus stays in check and everything stays as is. It is our priority to return children to school, but it must be safe,” she said.
Ken Webb, chair of the Further Education Colleges Principals' Group, said the recovery plan was welcome and that attention now must turn to the safe return of students and staff to campus and the resumption of face-to-face learning.
“College life has been disrupted now for one year with lengthy periods being spent in online, remote learning,” he said.
“This learning format cannot replace practical skills development that takes place in college campuses and coupled with remaining uncertainty over arrangements to replace examinations, there is real anxiety being felt amongst our college communities, between both students and staff
.“Our students’ education has no doubt been impacted during this time, and our focus now is to build on the fantastic work our staff have provided during the restrictions of this last year.
“Many of the courses we provide are practical in nature, therefore our students need to be on campus for the applied, in-person teaching that is required. We are pleased to see that this has been recognised by the Executive and inserted early in Stage Two of the recovery pathway.
“As we begin our own pathway back from the pandemic, our priority is the safe return of all staff and pupils and ensuring that all our learners receive the education they deserve. We look forward to working with our full college community to guarantee a smooth transition back to on-campus learning.”
Dr Graham Gault, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said principals were excited as the prospect of pupils returning to class comes closer.
“Our school principals are so excited about having our children and young people return to face-to-face teaching,” he said, but urged parents to remain patient as the situation becomes clearer.
“Parents, please have patience with your schools as we seek to reintegrate your children back into the classroom environments, because there are so many significant and complex things that the staff have to consider.”