TALKS over the date when children return to school will continue but the plan laid out by the Executive last week remains in place, Arlene Foster has announced.
The First Minister said the health and education departments would continue discussions, with the possibility that primary one to primary three pupils could remain in class through to the Easter break instead of reverting to remote learning on March 22.
While primary one to primary three pupils will return on March 8, Mrs Foster said the Executive intended to give more clarity around pupils still not in school by next month.
During a meeting of the Executive on Thursday, ministers indicated a desire to avoid years one to three returning to school on March 8 before reverting back to remote learning for a number of days before the Easter break.
Education and health officials will work together on “decision-making timelines” and advise the public at the earliest opportunity, Mrs Foster said.
“We’ve often said there’s a role for the kitchen table in every child’s education, but it will never be a substitute to the school desk,” she added.
“Ministers and the Executive’s specialist advisers all agree that school is beneficial from an educational perspective and for children’s physical and mental health. The risk to children from Covid is exceptionally small.
“The Executive will keep all of these issues under review, as we said we would last week.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said getting children back to school safely was the Executive’s top priority.
“To put to bed any confusion, the Executive’s position is what was set out last week,” she added.
“Clearly, we’re worried about the impact this is having on children and we’re worried about how quickly we can get children back into school, but it must be sustainable and it must be safe.
“We must give parents some comfort that it’s going to be safe for their children.”
When asked about DUP MP Sammy Wilson comparing Health Minister Robin Swann to a poodle, Mrs Foster said she believed certain tweets “should be typed out and then deleted”.
“I know people are frustrated (and) I know people are angry, (but) it’s certainly not language I would have used,” she explained.
“I think there is a genuine desire to have a debate about the need to get young people back to school — and that’s a debate we had today.”
But Mrs O’Neill branded Mr Wilson’s comments “disgraceful”.
“All Executive ministers have a very difficult job in charting our way through the pandemic, not least the Health Minister,” she said.
“I think Sammy Wilson’s comments were disgraceful and I would totally dissociate myself from that.
“This has been a time where there have been threats made towards public representatives and there’s been threats towards journalists reporting on different incidents. That’s not acceptable and I think that needs to be called out.”
Mrs Foster also insisted the DUP had confidence in Dr Michael McBride despite differences of opinion over school returns.
“I have full confidence in our Chief Medical Officer. He has worked tirelessly, as indeed has the Chief Scientific Adviser and his Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, to bring us impartial advice,” she said.
Her comments came as the Department of Health announced another five people had died with coronavirus, bringing the local death toll to 2,048.
A further 281 positive cases were confirmed, but there was a dip in the number of in-patients, which fell by 15 to 341.
There currently are 44 people in intensive care, 32 of whom are on ventilators.