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Coronavirus and back to school: Northern Ireland heads to study guidance, but fear a 'logistical nightmare'

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Christos Gaitatzis

Christos Gaitatzis

Christos Gaitatzis

School principals have said they will spend the coming days digesting the content of guidelines published by the Education Minister.

But already different interpretations are emerging of the New School Days document from the Department of Education.

One primary school principal urged the department to consider lifting all restrictions for the benefit of children's education.

The views of Keith Wysner, principal at Whiteabbey Primary, are tempered by Christos Gaitatzis, principal at Omagh High School, who said that all parents must be on board ahead of the new school term in August.

"These guidelines have not really come as a surprise as all the elements have been talked about before," said Mr Wysner.

"But the truth is that I can't bring all the children back in together with even a one-metre social distancing guideline in place.

"We'll be looking at two days in and three out for pupils during the course of a natural week. That means there'll still be a big emphasis on blended learning.

"There's already talk about the restrictions around schools being lifted in their entirety in England in time for September and that's something we in Northern Ireland need to be considering now if we're serious about getting schools back up and running effectively.

"They've taken that route in Holland and we should look at how that has worked." Mr Wysner said he will prepare for the worst case - for now.

He added: "Hopefully, come August, I'll never have to take those plans off the shelf because it's a far from ideal situation for the children and the parents with school attendance one day and not the next."

Omagh High School principal Mr Gaitatzis said that although the guidelines are welcome, the fact remains it will be a "logistical nightmare".

"We're going to meet as a staff next week and try to work it all out," he said. "But we operate in a very old building and as things stand it's very likely we will not be able to accommodate every pupil, every day.

"We'll concentrate on making sure the exam year students are accommodated, but that will likely mean instead of having three classes, we'll have to have six. That's when you run into further problems with staffing levels. I'll need six teachers instead of three, but finance is an issue.

"The idea of a staggered arrival of pupils might work better in Belfast, where there is a greater availability of transport, but we have a lot of pupils coming in from rural areas. They all get the same bus and unless there are extra buses put on the options are extremely limited.

"And if pupils are arriving at various stages of the day putting a timetable together, considering the staffing levels, will be another nightmare to overcome."

While the idea of restarting school without restrictions would be the ideal solution, Mr Gaitatzis said the most important thing is to make sure parents are conformable that their children will be safe.

He added: "We would all love to say to the pupils you're all welcome back. But we have spent three months moving along a route. The guidance would have to be crystal clear that pupils are safe, there is no danger. We need all the parents on board. The public need to be convinced before we can drop all restrictions."

The Northern Ireland Head Teachers' Association said it would take time to consider the contents of the guidelines.

Before the guidelines were published Graham Gault, who is principal of Maghaberry Primary School and vice-president of the NHTA, said he had measured his own classrooms and could manage 15 pupils rather than the usual 30.

"At the moment it looks likely, if nothing changes, that I'll be able to welcome back half of my school cohort," he said.

"Schools want our children to be back full-time, it's what we crave, but that's not going to happen unless something very drastic changes."

Belfast Telegraph