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Coronavirus: No date planned for Northern Ireland schools to reopen, says Weir as he hints at phased return

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Pupils leave Grosvenor Grammar School in east Belfast on the day before lockdown began

Pupils leave Grosvenor Grammar School in east Belfast on the day before lockdown began

Pupils leave Grosvenor Grammar School in east Belfast on the day before lockdown began

No date has been set to reopen schools in Northern Ireland, the Education Minister has said.

Peter Weir admitted that when they do resume, it will not be "business as usual".

This will likely entail some form of remote learning, he said.

Schools in Northern Ireland have been closed to all but a small number of pupils since March 20 due to coronavirus.

Speaking at the Executive's daily briefing at Stormont yesterday, Mr Weir said that school summer holiday dates may not be sacrosanct when it comes to pupils returning to the classroom.

Mr Weir indicated that a phased return of pupils is anticipated alongside the continuation of some remote learning.

He said: "For many parents and carers, the timing of the reopening of schools is of crucial importance and there has been much speculation on this.

"Let me state clearly that there is no planned date for the reopening of schools for normal business."

He said any decision on this will be driven by "the circumstances, guided by science and health advice, and will not be date-driven".

Mr Weir added: "Whenever schools do return, it's unlikely this will be on a business-as-usual basis.

"There's likely to be a phasing of the return of pupils alongside some form of remote learning.

"At all times the safety and wellbeing of our staff and pupils will be our priority.

"Many issues need to be addressed before schools could reopen.

"We are quite sensibly embarking on planning work to consider on scope these issues and I'm committed to full engagement with all relevant stakeholders, including schools and school leavers, before any decisions are taken."

Mr Weir acknowledged some students may have issues accessing technology and said he had asked the Education Authority to work with schools to tackle the issue.

Around 470 schools are open in Northern Ireland to care for the children of key workers, he said. Over 1,300 pupils continue to attend school and Mr Weir said the figure had continued to "rise steadily" after Easter.

The Education Minister said 32 schools were pooling their resources.

Earlier this week, Mr Weir was warned not to reopen schools prematurely by a group representing British and Irish teacher trade unions.

Jacquie White, of the Ulster Teachers' Union, warned of a risk that transmission rates might spike if schools are opened prematurely, as well as operational challenges.

Schools in the Republic of Ireland will remain closed until September at the earliest, having been shut since March 13.

Asked about the prospect of schools here reopening before the new academic year, in July or August, Mr Weir said: "We're talking about things that are condition-led and circumstance-led rather than time-led.

"To that extent I think we may need to look at whether there's any level of flexibility in terms of the school year, and from that point of view exact dates may not be sacrosanct on that basis."

Mr Weir said the full reopening of the school estate could not happen "overnight" and schools and parents would need time to prepare for a return to classes.

"There's got to be a level of lead-in period, particularly for schools to prepare on issues around social distancing," he said.

"So, I believe it's important that when we come to the point in which the realisation in which that level of reopening can happen on a phased basis, that there's plenty of notice given to schools and also to parents so they're able to do that level of preparation for the level of resumption of direct school activities through any form of reopening."

Mr Weir also announced that a £12m scheme to support the childcare sector would open for applications on Thursday.

He said over 54,000 families, covering 98,350 children, had availed of free school meal payments, at a cost of £7.7m to date.

Mr Weir urged anyone who is eligible for the scheme but who does not have a bank account to contact the Department for Communities' Covid-19 helpline.

Belfast Telegraph