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Northern Ireland teachers question the rationale behind keeping schools open


Education: pupils from St Dominic’s Grammar School in Belfast wearing masks

Education: pupils from St Dominic’s Grammar School in Belfast wearing masks

Education: pupils from St Dominic’s Grammar School in Belfast wearing masks

Northern Ireland's schools are already operating blended learning by default as they struggle to cope with Covid-19 cases, a leading teachers' union has said.

Schools and childcare will remain open as part of the latest two week circuit breaker lockdown while universities will practice distanced learning.

But Stephen McCord, President of the Ulster Teachers' Union and head of science at Larne High School, says his members are questioning the rationale behind keeping schools open in their usual format.

"It's one thing to say that schools should remain open because children's education is paramount but the reality is that schools are struggling to do so with many working on a blended learning system by default already because of illnesses and self-isolation," Mr McCord said.

"Of course it's imperative that our children's education is protected and as teachers we know that the best place for any child is in school but if schools are profoundly compromised in delivering the education the children deserve in the classroom it's time to look at alternatives.

"In the absence of normality we need a model which will provide the best possible learning in the circumstances and if that is some form of blended learning then schools must be given notice of this and allowed time to prepare," he added.

Recent statistics from the PHA show there were 2,420 positive Covid-19 cases in schools since the beginning of term in late August until November 8.

However, many other pupils or staff have had to self-isolate for 14-days after being in close contact with a positive case and in some cases, they have already had to do this more than once.

"Staff absences are placing huge strains on the system and on those staff left in schools and the move to this latest lockdown, while insisting that schools stay open, is only fuelling anxiety levels among teachers who are feeling increasingly isolated and at risk," Mr McCord added.

"Apart from anything else teachers fear that if schools stay open the restrictions will be less effective so the latest lockdown will be another half measure as it's not only about the safety of schools themselves, but about the role of schools in terms of local community transmission.

"There can be few places with more social mixing than in schools where pupils and staff then go back to their families and wider community," he said.

There is also growing speculation about an extended break for schools 10 days before Christmas from December 15.

Education Minister Peter Weir has previously dismissed the possibility of a longer Christmas break for schools, branding it "a rumour" and adding that further disruption to the school calendar was not on the table.

He tweeted on Friday: "I know there has been speculation about the early closure of our schools for the Christmas holidays. There are *no* plans for this to occur.

"I believe that schools are the best place for our children."

Graham Gault, president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NI) has called for some "straight talking" from Mr Weir.

"If this is something that is being considered, our schools need to know to help us plan," he said.

"It is not sufficient to say 'there are *no* plans for this to occur' as the Minister has said on Twitter.

"If this is even being discussed, we need to know, because our schools concern hundreds and thousands of people and cannot simply have significant goalposts changed at the last minute," Mr Gault added.

Belfast Telegraph