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Education Minister Peter Weir reveals plan for NI schools to reopen from late August on a phased basis

Education Minister Peter Weir has revealed his plans for some school pupils to return to school in late August.

Pupils in key years, such as those taking GCSEs or A-levels, and those transitioning from primary to secondary schools, will be the first to return.

A wider phased return for other pupils is to follow in September, but Mr Weir said this would involve a mix of learning at school and from home. If medical evidence allows, younger pupils may also be able to return to school full-time.

Teaching unions have said members remain highly concerned over health and safety.

Mr Weir said: "This will not be a return to school as it was prior to Covid, but rather a new normal reflective of social distancing and a medically safe regime.

"For all pupils it will involve a schedule with a mixture of school attendance and remote learning at home."

Teaching unions have welcomed Mr Weir's calls for a collaborative approach on the arrangements, but said that pupil safety must be a priority.

Speaking at the daily Executive briefing, Mr Weir said any steps would be strictly guided by medical advice and the coming weeks would be used to establish the details. He warned that schools could not be the same as before the pandemic.

"It's too early to say how particular measures will work out but we want to bring people along with us and talk to the experts both in schools, and indeed the wider medical community, as we move ahead," he said.

"There will be major challenges that are out there and it's about trying to balance out all these things."

At present around 1,700 pupils, including vulnerable children and those with parents as key workers, are attending 450 school settings on a daily basis with supervision from 2,000 staff.

Mr Weir also set out measures to support disadvantaged children during the pandemic.

This is the biggest public health crisis we have faced in living memory, and the Executive's role is to support those who face real hardship Peter Weir

This includes 24,000 digital devices such as laptops and tablets being made available for children to assist with remote learning.

Priority will be given to pupils studying for GCSEs, A-levels and those children going into P7, and "also those who are considered vulnerable and in disadvantaged groups, including those entitled to a free school meal and newcomer children".

Free school meal provision has seen £10.7m set aside for around 101,500 children but is due to end on June 30, with the Executive to decide on provision for the summer months.

"This is the biggest public health crisis we have faced in living memory, and the Executive's role is to support those who face real hardship," Mr Weir said.

He acknowledged that existing inequalities within the education system would continue to be a challenge.

"I think there's a range of mitigating measures that will want to be put in place to try to ensure that whatever disadvantage is there, that gaps are closed," he said. "Is there still likely to be some level of inequality within our society? Yes, that is likely. In and of itself this will not solve it, it will be part of a wider package of measures.

"In an imperfect situation, all we can try and do is to ensure that we have as much mitigation to give as much opportunity for every child as possible."

Mr Weir recognised the strain on mental health for some pupils after the disruption of Covid-19.

"Challenges will be there for mental health across society but particularly for children, that will be a major challenge as we move ahead," he said. "I have ensured that [in] the budget as we move ahead, there is some additional money and support for mental health.

"But it's got to be tackled on a cross-departmental and cross-sectional regard. I think we'll only be in a position to fully assess what needs to happen ... when there's a greater level of recovery within society."

Another seven deaths involving Covid-19 were announced on Thursday, bringing Northern Ireland's total to 501.

An extra 42 people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 4,481.

Belfast Telegraph