The Executive plan for a phased return for schools has been welcomed as ‘sensible and logical’ - but there are still many questions to be answered before pupils in P1 to P3 arrive back in the classroom on March 8.
All children aged 4-7 will be the first group of pupils to return to face to face learning following Thursday’s announcement.
Teaching unions, though, are still awaiting more clarity on how the return will be handled, with pupils in exam years 12-14 set to return on March 22 to allow for assessments at A-level, GSCE and AS-level and other vocational qualifications to begin under the latest plan, with P1-P3 pupils reverting to remote learning during the final week before the Easter holidays.
But Education Minister Peter Weir is working with the health department and schools themselves to ensure face coverings are worn by pupils and teachers in the classroom, new signage will be placed at school gates warning parents of the danger of contact and a robust system of testing of pupils is also likely to be introduced.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the plan for school returns was “a shameful way to treat pupils and teachers”.
“It is often difficult to find logic in the Covid restrictions announced by the Executive but the announcement yesterday around schools is particularly baffling,” he said.
“I just do not understand the ‘hokey cokey’ nonsense of P1-3 in, then out, and years 12-14 in. Where is the logical linkage between primary and secondary pupils at different schools?”
He said all primary pupils and examination years in secondary schools should be back from the outset.
Mr Allister added: “I will continue to oppose the illogical approach to restrictions mindful that the criteria for ending lockdown keeps changing - it used to be about reducing the R number, then it was about vaccinations and now no one seems clear.
“It is a shameful way to treat pupils and teachers and our economy which is emblematic of a shambolic system of government.”
Teachers’ union NASUWT said the phased return was “the basis of a good plan to get children back to school”.
“We’re glad to see that the Executive is operating on the basis of putting public health first, following the science and monitoring the impact of reopening before deciding on the next steps,” said spokesman Justin McCamphill.
However, Mr McCamphill added concerns remain over exam year pupils going into school.
“We see that the minister has said that all exam year pupils go in, our view is they only really should be going in if they need to carry out assessments,” he said.
“We want to know what the Department of Education is going to do to ensure all risk assessments in schools are updated, that control measures are reinforced, that we have proper ventilation, that we have social distancing in place and those measures should now be more achievable when there are fewer pupils in the schools.”
Pupils in P4 to P7 at primary school and those in and years 8 to 11 in post-primary will not be back in school until after the Easter break at the earliest.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said that “the phased return to schools from the executive has posed as many questions as answers” and said that more talks with the Department are needed before the March 8 return date.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), though, said it was “very sensible and logical” to open schools on a phased basis.
Regional officer in Northern Ireland, Robert Wilson, said that allowing the youngest pupils to return first was a sensible first step.
“For those in secondary education who would have faced important examinations this summer, the planned return to the classroom on 22 March is very important, although the timing just a week before the start of the Easter holiday is debatable,” he said.
“Our exam-age pupils in particular have suffered a difficult and distressing year of disruption and lost learning.
“What is crucial is that pupils return in a way which is safe and sustainable, and which inspires the confidence of education staff and the public.
“Nobody wants to see schools having to close their doors again having collectively worked so hard to reopen them.”
Mr Wilson also called on the Executive to give teachers priority for Covid-19 vaccination.
Stephen McCord, president of the Ulster Teachers’ Union said that further talks are now planned with the department to map out the path ahead.
“A phased approach to the return to school is welcome and we will meet with the Department in the coming days to further discuss the detail,” he said.
“The decision to bring back the youngest children first is a welcome initial step. Young people in exam years too are being prioritised which will hopefully bring some clarity to them.
“There are still uncertainties ahead though for those students and the timing of their return a week before Easter isn’t ideal.
“The key thing is to get out children back to school, but only in a managed, safe and sustainable way which does not bring us back to a further full closure.
“We all want to see our schools open and staying open but this must be based on robust health information which reassures the schools and the public that it’s safe to do so.”
First Minister Arlene Foster said there would have to be mask wearing in classrooms for the first pupils to return, as well as on school buses.
“The Education Minister is working with the health department and the schools to roll that out,” she said.
She added that Mr Weir is also working on making sure appropriate signage is placed in all schools.
“It’s not just schools that are the difficulty,”she said. “It’s outside the schools where contact happens when kids are dropped off or picked up from school.
“A testing regime is also going to be rolled out in schools, particularly in post primaries and that’s where transmissibility is higher.”