The Education Minister has rejected calls to tighten the criteria for children of key workers to attend classes amid claims some schools are experiencing a 25% attendance rate.
Peter Weir said he was confident the current arrangements allowing vulnerable children and those of key workers to access supervised learning were safe.
During Assembly question time, TUV leader Jim Allister told Mr Weir he was aware of schools in his constituency that were still seeing in excess of one in four pupils attending.
Mr Weir said the average attendance across Northern Ireland was much lower.
He accepted there may be some “outliers”, such as those referenced by Mr Allister, where attendance rates were higher.
He said data from 75% of schools and pre-school settings on Monday January 18 indicated that 12,500 children of key workers were in classes, a rate of 4%.
The majority, 10,500, were attending primary schools.
The figures did not include special schools, which are currently open to all their pupils.
“The number of children of key workers attending mainstream schools is low enough and there’s no reason to assume that social distancing regulations cannot be adhered to,” he said.
Mr Weir said the overall attendance at primary schools of vulnerable children and those of key workers was running at around 9.5%.
He said for post-primary schools the rate was between 5-6%.
“On June 8 the criteria for key workers was extended by the executive in line with its coronavirus recovery plan,” he said.
“The definition of key workers was agreed and there’s currently no evidence that the criteria needs to be revisited.”
Mr Allister responded: “I must tell the minister I know of a number of schools in my constituency that the attendance level is much higher than the eight, nine, 10%.
“I can think of one school where I’m told the attendance level is in excess of 25%.
“In such a situation, that’s unfair to the pupils who have to be taught at home, it’s unfair to the teachers who have to juggle both teaching at home and teaching in the classroom and it’s really defeats the purpose, if there ever was a public health reason for closing our schools, if there is a quantum of up to 25% of pupils actually in school.”
Mr Allister suggested criteria be tightened to make it a requirement that access to school will only be allowed if both parents are key workers.
Mr Weir highlighted that key worker parents could sometimes be paid less than non-key worker parents in a family.
In such circumstances, he said if the children were not allowed to attend school the family may decide that it made more economic sense for the key worker to stay at home to look after the child.
“If they then have to remain within the home, then there’s a risk that actually what is happening is society has been deprived of the key workers,” he added.
During Assembly questions, Mr Weir was also pressed to confirm whether school reopening will be delayed until March.
Schools are currently due to reopen after the mid-term break in the middle of February however there is an expectation that date will be pushed back, given executive ministers have already decided to extend the region-wide lockdown affected other sections of society to March 5.
Mr Weir said he would be bringing a paper on the issue of school reopening to Thursday’s meeting of the executive.
He said he had also scheduled further engagement with Health Minister Robin Swann on the matter later on Tuesday.