Stormont’s Education Minister has rejected claims of dancing to London’s tune in his decision to delay the return of schools in Northern Ireland.
Peter Weir faced criticism from several MLAs during a recalled session of the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate the school closure issue.
Hours before MLAs convened at Stormont, Mr Weir had announced that the scheduled return of schools next Monday would be delayed for a week, with pupils taught remotely instead.
Assembly unanimously supported my motion & amendment. I appreciate support of other Parties for the @SDLPlive recall petition.— Daniel McCrossan MLA 🕊🇪🇺 (@McCrossanMLA) December 31, 2020
The âLast Minute Ministerâ moved under SDLP pressure. Sadly he gave no detail as to what mitigationâs, protections or resources he will put in place. pic.twitter.com/egv0udkiaA
The minister’s announcement came a day after England’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced similar moves across the Irish Sea.
Mr Weir, who had previously been insistent that schools would reopen as scheduled on January 4, was accused of making policy decisions on the hoof in response to actions by the UK Government.
SDLP Education Committee member Daniel McCrossan said: “It has taken Gavin Williamson to determine the English position for this minister to determine the Northern Ireland position.
“It’s a totally reckless situation and shows a minister that is not in control of his own department or brief and it shows a minister that is more willing to follow a Conservative government, instead of actually putting the interests of our community first.”
Mr McCrossan added: “Why can’t this minister stand on his own two feet and actually listen to the teachers, the principals, the young people in our society and recognise that Covid is spiralling out of control.”
The Education Ministerâs stubborn refusal to engage the advice of school leaders and indeed scientific and medical experts in a timely manner is leading to announcements of this nature that make contingency planning for teachers and parents distressingly difficult.— Chris Lyttle MLA (@Chris_Lyttle) December 31, 2020
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, who is chair of the Education Committee, claimed Mr Weir “doesn’t seem to want to make decisions until Gavin Williamson has made his”.
“The Education Minister’s stubborn refusal to engage the advice of school leaders and indeed scientific and medical experts in a timely manner is leading to decisions or announcements of this nature that make contingency planning for teachers and parents distressingly difficult,” he said.
“These decisions should have been taken before the end of the term.”
As part of measures announced by Mr Weir, secondary school Years 8 to 11 will continue to be taught via remote learning throughout January.
Other year groups and primary school children will return to the classroom on January 11 – a week later than scheduled.
Schools will open next week to accommodate vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Mr Weir had been facing mounting pressure to delay the return to school after the Christmas holidays due to the worsening infection rates in Northern Ireland.
The minister rejected the suggestion he was responding to Mr Williamson’s move and told the Assembly that he was acting in accordance with scientific and medical advice presented by Stormont’s health experts.
He said the situation had deteriorated rapidly since his last statement before Christmas when he said schools would reopen as planned on January 4, with Years 8 to 10 moving to remote learning on January 25 for at least two weeks.
“Since that position, in the last 10 days things have moved on and moved on dramatically and most significantly,” he said.
“They’ve moved on with the situation as regards to the figures, which were a week or two ago running at around the mid-400s (of daily Covid-19 cases).
Pre-school, nurseries and special schools to open as usual next week. pic.twitter.com/Vz1UvVJeUj— Education NI (@Education_NI) December 31, 2020
“I think shortly before Christmas it was around about 700 but have now moved in a matter of a few days to over 2,000.
“There is no doubt that we are facing an unprecedented and deteriorating situation.
“It is clear, with the vaccine coming, that this will hopefully be something that is a relatively temporary position but there’s a major threat out there.”
Mr Weir said any alternative to face-to-face learning had drawbacks.
“It is undoubtedly the case that either delayed openings, school closures, remote learning, blended learning – all these things are second best for our children,” he said.
“What delivers most is face-to-face teaching.”
At the close of the two-hour debate, an SDLP motion calling for urgent clarity from the minister on steps taken to protect school communities from Covid-19 was passed without the need for a formal vote.