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Week of uncertainty as decision on a return to classes is put back


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Concern: Dr Graham Gault, president of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT)

Concern: Dr Graham Gault, president of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT)


Schools in Northern Ireland are facing a week of uncertainty as they wait to see if they will be allowed to reopen as planned after the February half-term break.

But it's looking increasingly likely that education will fall into line with the rest of lockdown, and remain closed until March 5 at the earliest.

As the First and deputy First Ministers announced a four-week extension to the current restrictions on Thursday, they said the issue over continued school closures will be dealt with by the Executive next week.

Education Minister Peter Weir will meet with Health Minister Robin Swann over the next two days to discuss whether schools should reopen as planned.

The minister said that while he wants to keep the extent to which children are out of school to a minimum, there are other factors to consider.

"Decisions must be weighed up against the wider public health advice," he said.

"It's right and proper that we take a little time and not make any quick decisions."

He said that education has operated on a slightly different timetable to other sectors.

"Next week's discussions will consider keeping schools closed until March 5, in line with decisions taken by ministers today," he confirmed.

"We saw the surge which took place particularly around the Christmas period," the minister said. "I don't think that was particularly linked in with schools.

"What happens directly within schools has a limited amount of impact on the virus but what it does have is an element of behavioural aspects, particularly around freeing up adults to be in other places. I think we do need to weigh up all the factors. The overriding aim should ultimately be to have children directly in schools getting that face to face learning."

First Minister Arlene Foster said there was "plenty of time" to provide clarity for schools and parents, while Michelle O'Neill added that the Executive is aware that parents and teachers need that clarity and they hope provide it early next week.

Meanwhile, with eight times as many pupils in school during this lockdown, the Department of Education says there is no cause for concern regarding numbers in schools during the current lockdown.

Head teachers, though, are concerned at the difficulties now being faced at managing greater numbers in the classroom and dealing with the challenges of online learning.

"Across the system, according to Department, the numbers in schools do not seem to be problematic," said NAHT President Graham Gault.

"However, at local school level, there are some difficulties caused by the larger numbers of key worker children availing of supervised learning, as opposed to the previous period of lockdown.

"What is of particular difficulty is managing both remote learning activities for children at home, whilst also providing on-site supervision for many children. Our schools continue, however, to do an amazing job in very challenging circumstances and we, at NAHT, commend all frontline education staff for their strong and galvanised approach to this significant and critical period of the pandemic response."

Part of the increase is due to special schools remaining open, unlike from March to June last year.

However, Department of Education statistics suggest many more children of key workers and vulnerable children are now attending school.

Belfast Telegraph

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