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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland only UK region without taskforce to assist schools

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Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a dedicated taskforce preparing for the impact of coronavirus on schools, it has emerged

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a dedicated taskforce preparing for the impact of coronavirus on schools, it has emerged

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a dedicated taskforce preparing for the impact of coronavirus on schools, it has emerged

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a dedicated taskforce preparing for the impact of coronavirus on schools, it has emerged.

The Departments of Education in England, Scotland and Wales all have working groups preparing school closures, advice for staff, parents and teachers and what to do in the worse-case scenario that schools are shut.

Sinn Fein education spokeswoman and Foyle MLA Karen Mullan said a similar working group was needed here.

Speaking to this newspaper, Ms Mullan said: "I have asked the Education Minister to set up a standalone educational working group on coronavirus, like they have in England, Scotland and Wales.

"A plan needs to be put in place as a matter of urgency for students who are studying for their GCSEs and A-levels, but also for the possibility of remote learning for all students.

"It is vitally important that the Department of Education and the minister gets in front of this and doesn't wait until we are facing a crisis and schools are left not knowing if they should close or not.

"Things are changing on an hour-by-hour basis now. It is no longer day-by-day.

"Parents, teachers and students need to know that there is a solid plan in place.

"I would also like a helpline for schools beyond what is on the Public Health Authority.

"Two weeks ago, Italy had the same number of cases as the UK does now.

"We must use this time to get in front of this situation because we do not want to be in the same position as Italy in two weeks' time."

In Co Armagh two schools on the same site, Newtownhamilton primary and high school, were shut after a student tested positive for the virus.

The NASUWT, the largest teaching union here with around 1,200 members, and the Ulster Teachers Union are understood to be waiting on guidance from the Education Authority.

The NASUWT's website has added a page updating members who are infected and advice on school trips.

It says: "As cases occur, more people will be required to self-isolate. It is vital that staff follow the advice of the Government to prevent the spread.

"Where teachers are absent from work due to self-isolation, this should be considered a medical suspension rather than sick leave and full pay should apply.

"Absence should also be disregarded for absence management procedures.

"Schools should ensure that risk assessments for visits abroad are reviewed, taking into account not only the risk of infection, but also the risk of becoming stranded, should the situation deteriorate rapidly. Schools should liaise closely with tour operators in their decision-making process of whether to cancel any visits."

SDLP education spokesman and West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan also asked for an action plan for schools.

However, the Ulster Unionists' spokesman for health said there was no need for alarm.

Robbie Butler MLA added: "If the scientific advice changes, then we must react accordingly, but we must listen to what the medical and scientific experts are saying and take their advice."

Belfast Telegraph