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‘Closing of schools must be avoided’, says Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma

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Koulla Yiasouma. (Image supplied via P Morris Communications and Engagement Officer, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People)

Koulla Yiasouma. (Image supplied via P Morris Communications and Engagement Officer, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People)

Koulla Yiasouma. (Image supplied via P Morris Communications and Engagement Officer, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People)

Schools have been urged to avoid further closures at all costs with children having already missed too much time out of the classroom due to the Covid pandemic.

The call comes from the Commissioner for Children and Young People, who said all avenues must be explored so sending pupils home from school does not become normal practice.

Some schools are already preparing new timetables to begin after Christmas, having warned parents that many children will face days off as the number of staff off through Covid-related issues continues to rise across Northern Ireland, saying the situation has become a serious health and safety concern.

“We should not be in a position where whole classes or year groups are learning from home because of staff shortages, as is the case in some schools,” said Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

“That situation is untenable and urgent intervention is needed so that children receive the education they have the right to.

“I welcome some of the suggestions already offered to make sure this does not become the norm, such as calling in retired teachers and redeploying teachers that are not currently working in schools.

“Some older children are undertaking both mock and full GCSEs. Many children, of all ages, are only now beginning to settle back into education in the classroom.

"I know that school staff, unions, the Education Authority and the minister all agree that further school closures must be avoided at all costs and I urge them all to make every effort, including exploring the above suggestions, to ensure that this intolerable pressure on some schools is alleviated and our children do not have their education further disrupted.

“My ‘New and Better Normal’ Report highlighted the impact of school closures on children and yet again our children and young people are anxious about their education and the services that they receive in school. Closing of schools must be avoided, the impact is much too serious for our children and young people.”

All this week, schools have been reporting severe staffing issues, with principals unable to secure substitute teachers off the NISTR register, which all substitute teachers must be registered on in Northern Ireland.

Some schools are making over 100 telephone calls a day to get classes covered, with over 1,000 teachers absent through Covid related issues in the last four weeks and the numbers rising every day.

Helena Macormac, director of the National Association of Head Teachers, called on the Department of Education to expand the register for substitute teachers to help alleviate the situation.

“We want to see them perhaps encouraging recently retired teachers to come back or incentivising teachers which are within other areas of the system, and asking them to return to teaching,” she said.

“There needs to be clear messaging from the department for parents and pupils and to let them know their school may be faced with this situation.”

Teaching union the NASUWT added: “We are in this situation because teachers and support staff are catching Covid. Until a serious effort is made to stop the spread of Covid, more students will be sent home. At all costs, this has to be the first priority.

“This means stopping all mass gatherings in schools now. Why are some schools still holding open days and parents’ evenings? Why are teachers kept on site after children have gone home for meetings?”

The Department continues to urge schools to reinforce guidance available from the Public Health Agency, and said there remain no plans to introduce a series of circuit breaker school closures ahead of Christmas.

“Departmental guidance requires schools to continue to implement a range of mitigations to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission including: cleaning, ventilation, face coverings, consistent groups and regular asymptomatic testing using lateral flow devices for all staff and post-primary pupils. Vaccination is available to all staff and some students.

“Anyone displaying any of the key Covid-19 symptoms must not attend school. They should stay at home and book a Covid-19 test.”


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