Education Minister Peter Weir has said that £10.7 million in free school meal payments have been paid out for some 101,500 children in Northern Ireland since the lockdown began.
Speaking at the Executive's daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Weir said that, on average, 450 educational settings have been open every day during the pandemic, with 200 staff supporting supervised learning for 1700 children.
He said the Covid-19 crisis was affecting the emotional and mental health of children and providing continuity of learning for young people was a key focus of the education sector.
The minister stressed that in the coming months, Northern Ireland’s C2K online learning programme would become increasingly important, as schools adopted what the called a ‘blended ‘ approach to education, with time spent in the class room, as well as time spent learning at home.
To help ensure all pupils had access to digital devices which would enable them to use the online learning tools, the minister announced a scheme to lend devices to educationally disadvantaged and vulnerable learners
“I am committed to doing all I can to support those who will, in the incoming year, be studying for GCSEs, A Levels and those children going into P7," he said.
“Therefore priority will be given to pupils in these circumstances and also those who are considered vulnerable and in disadvantaged groups including those entitled to a free school meal and newcomer children.”
Three thousand new laptops have been purchased, and a further four to eight thousand additional devices may be bought as part of this scheme, he said.
Mr Weir also confirmed schools in Northern Ireland will begin to reopen in late August.
“In relation to restarting the education system, it’s important that we focus now on recovery and the process of phased reopening of our schools. It’s important that this is done in a manner and timescale that is safe for our pupils our staff and wider society,” the minister said.
The Department of Education has set up programme to enable the safe, phased reopening of schools.
“Subject to medical guidance and safety it would be my aim to see a phased reopening of schools, beginning with a limited provision for key cohort years in late August, followed by phased provision for all students at the beginning of September," Mr Weir said.
“This will not be a return to school as it was prior to Covid-19, but rather a ‘new normal’, reflecting social distancing and a medically safe regime.”