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Coronavirus: Minister must give fresh guidance for a return to class in Northern Ireland, insist principals

Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir is facing growing pressure to set out a more comprehensive back to school plan if all students are to return from next month.

In line with previous Department of Education guidance issued in June, many schools have been planning to bring students back on a part-time basis in four weeks' time.

However, Mr Weir has now indicated that having children returning to all 1,000 schools here full-time in the new academic year, with appropriate safeguarding and mitigation measures for staff and pupils, is "quite achievable".

Mr Weir confirmed on Wednesday that he will be discussing a new plan around the "full resumption of schools across the board" with his Executive colleagues in the coming days.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at an event at Cregagh Primary School, Mr Weir added: "We're on a trajectory for the return of schools.

"That will require Executive approval and ultimately will need to be judged closer to the time of resumption of schools.

"Good progress has been made upon that timeframe, something that will be welcomed by teachers, parents and most children."

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Michael Allen

Michael Allen

Michael Allen

Michael Allen, principal of Lisneal College in Londonderry, says his current plans are based on the original departmental guidance on how schools adapt for the new school day.

The school has 900 pupils and 100 staff members on site, who will be brought back on a week about basis.

Mr Allen says any new plans will require updated guidance as soon as possible.

"At present the school will essentially be split into two groups with some pupils in school for the first week of September and following their timetable for a week, while the others remain at home doing remote learning.

"That will be flipped for the second week and rotated on a week-in, week-out basis because we see no other way to do this while social distancing restrictions are in place.

"In my opinion, for all schools to be back as normal we need to see the total removal of social distancing restrictions.

"Currently for me to fit pupils into classrooms at a one-metre distance would allow roughly for half or two-thirds of pupils, teachers and classroom assistants."

Neil Megaw is principal of Newtownhamilton High School in south Armagh, which has an enrolment of 200 pupils with 34 staff.

He said: "We have provisional plans in place for our restart on August 24 but are continuing to monitor the situation on a daily basis before we share final arrangements with our pupils, parents and staff in early August.

"As a father of two children, I fully understand the position that parents face in relation to child care, and it is trying to balance this issue with the provision of a safe environment that prevents the spread of Covid-19."

A €375m package was announced in the Republic earlier this week to get children back to school at the end of August.

It includes funding to hire new post-primary teaching staff - including 120 guidance posts, 600 extra teachers, and 360 posts for schools having the most difficulty reopening.

Mr Weir is also facing growing pressure over funding to ensure a safe return to classrooms here can be achieved.

But he has said the Executive would have to decide if it could make more money available for schools.

He added: "In terms of resourcing, I've already indicated there might be some additional costs that will be incurred in terms of restart."

Mr Weir said his department would "undoubtedly" need to seek additional financial support to accommodate the full return of schools.

Belfast Telegraph