First Minister Paul Givan has said there are no plans to close schools despite the growing concerns over the rise in Covid infections and staff shortages across the education system.
He was speaking after the Executive confirmed there would be no further restrictions imposed across Northern Ireland after ministers met on Thursday morning.
But the Assembly will be recalled on Monday at noon to discuss the current crisis in the education system.
Earlier this week Education Minister Michelle McIlveen told principals: “There are a number of scenarios where schools can use remote learning, particularly where they are experiencing staff shortages and they haven’t been able to secure sufficient cover.
“We have a shared objective to keep schools safe and open as we all know that the best place for our children and young people is in school,” the Minister added.
“We all must work together to reduce the spread of Covid-19. We will continue to do everything in our power to help school leaders during these unprecedented and extremely challenging circumstances."
MLAs were this morning notified of the Assembly recall to debate the crisis as schools struggle to stay open in the midst of staff shortages and rising Covid infections.
Assembly speaker Alex Maskey confirmed the news in a letter to MLAs.
It stated that the Assembly “expresses its support for keeping schools open and operating in a manner that is safe for pupils, parents, teachers and staff”.
The letter also expressed “serious concern at the lack of planning by the Minister of Education to ensure the safe reopening of schools in the context of the increased transmissibility of the Omicron Covid-19 variant; recognises the staffing pressures that increased transmissibility will present for schools; and calls on the Minister of Education to urgently develop a plan that puts the safety of pupils and staff first, through the installation of air monitoring and air filtration devices in all classrooms, and addresses the staffing pressures facing the education system by utilising and deploying additional teaching capacity to keep schools open and safe.”
The recall was petitioned on Wednesday by Sinn Fein education spokesperson Pat Sheehan, and initially supported by both the SDLP and the Alliance Party.
Meanwhile, a union representing thousands of school pupils across Northern Ireland has asked to meet with the Education Minister over continuing concerns of around classroom safety.
The Secondary Students’ Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI) said it believes HEPA filters and air purifiers should be in place “to protect our students due to the drastic increase in infection rates”.
And the students are asking to meet with the Minister to discuss their concerns, with a fear that any further rise in infection rates will lead to the school closures witnessed last year and a cancellation of exams for the third year in a row.
As yet there has been no change to the guidelines schools were operating under before the Christmas break, though there have been concerns that classes of up to 30 pupils coming back into confined spaces after spending time at home with families will give rise to a surge in positive Covid cases.
Ms McIlveen and her department face mounting calls to provide more measures to protect pupils and staff from the Omicron variant.
Schools are also coping with severe staff shortages, with many schools unable to secure substitute teachers to cover absences.
The SSUNI, which represents more than 40,000 students, said more action was needed in a bid to keep schools open.
“The situation in schools is dire,” the Union warned.
“If measures are not taken to support schools and make them safer for pupils and staff we will find ourselves in the same position as last year - a huge post-Christmas surge in Covid numbers, a four month lockdown and exams cancelled.
“Staff shortages are already ravaging our schools, depriving us of important classroom time that we have missed over the past two years.
“We desperately need the first exams in three academic years.
“We do not need to lecture why closing schools is a bad thing,” the students continued.
“What we need is a prioritised and appropriate response to the serous infection rate amongst young people.
“Our schools are in crisis. Our students deserve to feel safe in the classroom. We will be requesting a meeting with the Minister on behalf of the 40,000 students we represent
“We need HEPA filters in every classroom, money to cover staff absences, commitment to improve hybrid learning and engagement with students orotund exams.
“Education as a whole is being dragged under due to the staff shortages created by contact tracing, and so in order to keep schools open we must do all that we can to keep both staff and students safe.”
Around 11,500 Co2 monitors have already been delivered with a further delivery of 5,000 due this week.
Earlier this week, Ms McIlveen said officials were working on the delivery of 7,000 high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, but there was no date yet for their arrival.
The Department has been contacted for further comment.