Too much celebrating on Mother’s Day and St Patrick’s Day could delay any potential return to full-time education for thousands of young people, Michelle O’Neill has warned.
The Deputy First Minister said that people still need to be “very careful” with two big dates in the calendar coming up over the next few days.
Asked during Thursday’s Covid-19 briefing in Dungannon if there was a danger that plans for school returns would be affected if restrictions were flouted, Mrs O’Neill said: “Yes, that’s why we’re appealing to the public to be very careful.
“We understand Mother’s Day is a significant time. Families want to get together.
“It’s just not going to be possible this year.”
She said the new variant of Covid means the virus spreads faster than ever, even among a small number of people gathered together.
“We’re asking people to bear with things for a bit longer,” she added.
Her comments came after thousands of children were left waiting for a date when they will be allowed to return to school.
She said: “We are on the cusp of brighter days but we are not out of the woods, so please celebrate St Patrick’s Day with your own family.”
No decision was reached at Thursday’s Executive meeting on the full return of all pupils.
But First Minister Arlene Foster did confirm that P1-P3 pupils will now be allowed to remain in class beyond March 22.
The youngest pupils were due to revert to remote learning from that date to allow those in post-primary exam years 12-14 to return to school.
Exam year pupils will still return on March 22.
The Education Minister had argued it did not make “enormous sense” to withdraw P1-P3 from school just nine days after returning. Peter Weir said while he was pleased a “small step” had been taken, “this journey will only be over when every pupil is back in school”.
“There will be further discussions on Tuesday in terms of the remainder of those school years that have not been confirmed.
“I hope there can be further progress. It wasn’t a question of the Executive saying the timing wasn’t right.
“I brought forward a paper with three recommendations. It was accepted across the board that P1-P3 needed to change.
“In terms of the others, while I would have liked them to have been decided, particularly with regards to the rest of primary schools, it was clear there wasn’t going to be a consensus.
“The DUP would be keen to see these steps. We want to see movement, but there needs to be complete consensus.
“That’s different to saying there was opposition, but other ministers will need to explain their own positions.”
Mr Weir said Covid testing kits would be arriving with the Education Authority on Friday and a programme to roll them out, with emphasis on the upper ends of school and staff, will then get under way.
After the Department of Health confirmed a further nine deaths and 223 new Covid cases over the previous 24 hours on Thursday, Mrs O’Neill said as well as the full return to school next Tuesday, the Executive will have a wider review of restrictions.
“We have consistently said as an Executive that we have a shared focus on the education and wellbeing of young people and we have prioritised getting them back into school,” she added.
“It was great to see the youngest children returning to school this week and we look forward to all children being back in the classroom as soon as possible.
“The message today is still very much ‘steady as you go’.
“But we are approaching a number of occasions over the next week that we know are very important to families.”
She added the situation in the Holyland area of Belfast, usually blighted by anti-social behaviour on St Patrick’s Day, would be watched carefully.
Mrs Foster added: “Please enjoy the festival within your own home, please be responsible and do not break the law. We continue to collaborate around the situation in the university area and we will continue to have those conversations.”
She said she had hoped to go further towards a full school return, but that the Executive will aim to provide clarity and certainty on Tuesday.
“I would have liked to have moved a bit further in relation to other cohorts but what we’re doing is looking at this in a strategic way and we will make announcements on P4-P7 and Years 8-11 on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen the joy from P1-P3 and that’s what we want to see, our young people back at school,” she added.
A teaching union said if the situation had now changed to allow P1-P3 to remain in school, the advice of chief medical officer Michael McBride should be published.
“If it is not published we must assume that this decision is not based on the science and the relentless criticism of the chief medical officer by certain politicians will continue,” said Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT.
“In relation to other year groups, it is regrettable that the minister continues to undermine the Executive decision.
“Bringing a paper to the Executive on March 16 is disrespectful to teachers and schools leaders, who have put plans in place for remote learning for the week beginning March 22.”