Sometimes the right decision can be made. It doesn’t always come at the right time.
Removing the health and safety issues it’s hard to find an argument that most children don’t thrive in the school environment.
It’s an argument the Education Minister has been pushing for months, and an argument that has gathered momentum over the past few weeks.
What Covid has taught us is just how much we rely on our schools, not just as places of learning, but as social hubs for both pupils and parents.
From next Monday all primary school pupils will be back behind their desks. From April 12 they’ll be joined by those in post primaries.
Children have missed their friends, and that social aspect is what teachers will be most concerned with first and foremost. Looking after the child, not the education. Catching up socially, and mentally, will be the initial goal as tens of thousands of primary school pupils join together for the first time this year next Monday. Catching up educationally will come in time.
Peter Weir has consistently pressed for a return as soon as health conditions allowed, and finally the Executive has been won over by his insistence coupled with the rates of Covid infection moving in the right direction. A commitment to rapid testing of school pupils and staff will have helped.
But just a week ago any full return of primary schools looked to be on hold, and that’s where the problems have mounted up for principals. The goalposts have moved very quickly. Within days of the original plan to allow P1-P3 to return, then drop out on March 22 to allow Years 12-14 to return to post primary, that was changed to allow the youngest to remain in school.
Now, a few days later, all primary pupils will return. Heads will be spinning in schools and they now face a race against time, with just two days to prepare if you allow for St Patrick’s Day.
In school, principal offices across the country they’ll now be throwing away the home schooling packs they have been working on. That battle proved fruitless this time.
Some will have spent the last few weeks covering all bases and will be ready to go. Some, coping with staffing issues, dealing with pupils in school and pupils still at home, will not have had the time or the resources to juggle everything.
Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner probably summed it up best when she said she’s “pleased with a tinge of frustration”.
“Predominantly, I’m delighted,” said Koulla Yiasouma. “But a little bit frustrated that this announcement has come when I know that many primary school staff hand principals have been putting out packs, have been having conversations about remote learning. Parents are pleased.
“What this does is add weight to the commitment that the Executive have given that reopening schools for children is a priority for them.”
On the flip side, where there is give, there has to be take.
Queen’s University virologist Dr Ultan Power said “carefully and slowly” have to be the key words in any plan to ease lockdown restrictions further elsewhere in society now.
“We’re still in relatively high numbers. On March 14, 121 cases were recorded. Transmission in the community is still stubbornly staying in the hundreds for the last few weeks now. The caution I would stress here is that we have to move extraordinarily carefully and slowly.
“If we open up all schools after Easter we’re talking about mobilising 300,000 people across Northern Ireland. That’s a substantial amount of people and potential interactions.
“That potentially increases the risk of transmissions, especially when the levels are still at a relatively high rate.”
Schools and schoolchildren have, finally, had their priority confirmed by the Executive. The knock-on effect for hairdressers, pubs, business seeking clarity over their own re-opening dates will be the price paid for looking after the youngest members of society.
Timing makes all the difference.