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Coronavirus: Parents of children with health issues launch legal bid to have Northern Ireland schools closed

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Several schools across Northern Ireland have closed voluntarily over the crisis

Several schools across Northern Ireland have closed voluntarily over the crisis

PA Archive/PA Images

Several schools across Northern Ireland have closed voluntarily over the crisis

Legal proceedings have been launched against two Stormont departments over the decision not to close schools across Northern Ireland in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

The mother of a primary school pupil with asthma and the father of a child recovering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, have appointed lawyers.

But the Education Minister has said now is not the time to close schools.

Phoenix Law, acting on behalf of the Co Armagh mother, has put the Ministers of Education and Health, the Education Authority and the CCMS on notice of plans to apply for an emergency judicial review of the decision.

Phoenix Law said: "Our client's daughter suffers underlying health problems, including severe asthma, and therefore is at a greater risk of harm should she contract the coronavirus.

"It is our client's case that the current position is unlawful and contrary to the necessary protections afforded to all citizens under the human rights act."

Darragh Mackin, the solicitor acting for the mother, said: "There is no time for any further delay. The necessary policies and decisions all need to be taken in a manner that recognises the real and immediate risk. The wider international community has spoken. Their advice cannot and should not be ignored."

Acting for the father of an immuno-compromised child who is recovering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, KRW Law has launched legal proceedings against the Department of Education, and has applied for a judicial review of the move to keep schools open.

KRW Law said the father had "watched with alarm as the rest of the European nations close their schools".

The statement went on: "That alarm is further intensified by the criticism that is being directed towards the United Kingdom and its decision to gamble with the lives of millions of its citizens by also failing to act.

"We therefore anticipate that the minister will set out in detail the exact science behind his decision, if any, and we also expect a detailed set of reasons to justify his approach."

Schools will continue to stay open until such time as this expert scientific advice changes Education Minister Peter Weir

News of the legal proceedings came as schools across Northern Ireland announced unilateral plans to close on Monday as teachers and parents face uncertainty about what happens next.

A string of schools have shut their doors, including all of Belfast's Special Schools, with principals and parents hitting out at politicians for failing to provide strong leadership through the Covid-19 crisis.

Announcing his school closure on Sunday, Michael Allen, principal of Lisneal College in Derry, said there was "great uncertainty and speculation" regarding what action to take and said "our political leadership cannot even agree on the best way forward".

The current situation we face is like no other I have seen in my lifetime Principal Michael Allen

Mr Allen's comments came less than 24 hours after First Minister Arlene Foster said schools should not close at this time, but that when they do they will stay closed for at least 16 weeks.

However, deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said schools should "close now", adding: "I think we need to be consistent across this island." Schools and childcare facilities in the Irish Republic were closed on Friday in response to the crisis.

In an open letter to parents and guardians, Mr Allen said he was "taken aback" by Mrs Foster's statement and said schools need time to prepare for such a move.

"At this point I do not know if pupils or staff will be able to access our campus," he said. "I do not know if lessons to prepare students for GCSEs and A-level examination/assessments will be allowed to go ahead and I do not know if public transport will be available for pupils to travel to school."

He added: "The current situation we face is like no other I have seen in my lifetime. My priorities at the moment are to protect vulnerable children, staff and family members, and to prepare learning resources for our pupils."

A number of other schools across Northern Ireland also announced plans to close on Monday, including Newcastle's Shimna Integrated College and Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry.

A statement from Lurgan Model Primary School, which will be closed all week, said: "The situation facing us with the current global spread of Covid-19 is unprecedented.

"Our situation here, on this part of the island of Ireland, is further complicated by the fact that we have a government that can't agree and act as one; and whilst I understand the science behind the current strategy, I also don't want anyone from our school community to become a statistic."

Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey welcomed the Belfast Special Schools' decision to close.

"This is an effort to protect pupils and staff and to help stop the spread of the coronavirus," he said. "These schools are displaying formidable leadership during what is a very difficult time for communities and wider society. I am calling on Education Minister Peter Weir to replicate this leadership by moving to close all schools with immediate effect."

But in a statement, Mr Weir said: "I have a clear duty of care for the education of children in Northern Ireland and in discharging these duties I will continue to follow the advice of clinical experts in this area.

"Consequently, I accept and support the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer and the Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE) that now is not the right time to close schools in Northern Ireland. Schools will continue to stay open until such time as this expert scientific advice changes."

The Education Authority said it would continue to work with schools in line with the most up-to-date medical advice, and would continue to follow Public Health Agency guidance on all matters.

The Ulster Teachers' Union said: "Unions are insisting that schools need clear direction, a coordinated approach and decisions need to be made."

Meanwhile, teachers' union NASUWT warned of concerns over virtual teaching should schools shut down.

In guidelines updated on March 12, the union said: "The NASUWT is also concerned that online sessions can be recorded and edited and this could lead to inappropriate postings on social media. Safeguards must be built in to prevent this and safeguard teachers and pupils who are participating, and if teachers feel concerned about this they should not be required to deliver sessions this way."

School closures

  • Shimna Integrated College, Newcastle
  • Lisneal College, Derry
  • Lurgan Model Primary School
  • Seaview Primary School and Nursery Unit, north Belfast
  • St Brigid’s Primary School, Ballymoney
  • St Scire’s PS, Trillick, Co Tyrone
  • Sacred Heart Primary, north Belfast
  • All Belfast Special Schools
  • Glendermott Primary School and Nursery Unit, Derry
  • St. Pius X College, Magherafelt

Belfast Telegraph