Schools should be bracing themselves for a further surge in Covid cases following the easing of wider restrictions, a leading union has warned.
Department of Education figures suggest the situation in schools over Covid absences is easing, but fears remain that the broader easing of restrictions will have a longer term impact in classrooms.
The northern chairperson of a leading teaching union has called on the Executive to send out a strong message to schools that now is not to time for the education sector to relax.
Marie O’Shea, from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), also questioned whether the figures released by the Department are painting a true picture of what has been happening in schools.
“On the ground we are hearing there remains a high percentage of Covid cases affecting schools,” she said, after the Department revealed that in the week January 10-14 there was a 90.3% attendance rate of pupils, a rise from 87.6% on the first week back after the Christmas holidays.
The number of pupils learning in school rose by 3.7% in the same time, reaching 88.6&.
The figures also showed that in the week up to January 17, 6.5% of teachers across the schools were absent due to Covid issues with 9% of classroom assistants absent and 64.5% of teacher absences covered by either existing staff or substitute teachers,
“What schools now must guard against is complacency. Seeing restrictions eased across society doesn’t mean this it a time to relax,” said Ms O’Shea.
“If anything schools are going to have to be stronger, and we would like to see stronger language used by the Executive in their messaging to education.
“We‘ve seen before that schools bear the brunt of any wider easing of restrictions. This time it will be no different.
“Schools need to be ready as we are likely to see another surge in cases over the next two weeks.
“It's not a coincidence that the Department absence figures are showing a slow down at a time when there has been a change in the testing regime. It may look good on paper, but the reality is that schools are still struggling to manage, and that can’t be forgotten. The positive cases amongst pupils and staff and the staff shortages are still a daily factor that schools are having to contend with.”
First Minister Paul Givan said the Executive decision was always that restrictions wouldn’t stay in place for a day longer than necessary.
“The view is that these restrictions relaxed today are no longer necessary,” he said.
“Our parents, our teachers and our students want to be in school. They want to be in university. They want face to face contact with their lecturers and teachers. We’re seeking to provide all the support we can to do that in a safe manner.
“We have to make sure the environments are as safe as possible but we do need to keep our children in schools.
“One thing that those lockdown measures showed us is the harm that they caused to children in particular, and the impact both academically and psychologically, and unfortunately physical abuse as well. That is a measure none of us want to see repeated in the future.
“These are testing times for our principals, for our teaching staff. They have been doing a remarkable job with teaching in classes and trying to deliver online learning for those pupils who haven’t been able to be in school. Closing down our schools is not something I ever want to see happen again.”