A large number of schools in Northern Ireland will not be able to return to full-capacity teaching in September, the Education Minister has said.
Peter Weir’s comments come amid concern expressed by some school leaders at the suggestion from Stormont that most pupils will be returning to full-time education in the autumn.
Some principals have said a one-metre social distancing requirement for pupils would prevent them from accommodating all pupils at the same time.
Mr Weir said he anticipated that children would only return to the classroom on a part-time basis “in quite a large number of schools”.
His department published guidance on Friday that recommended minimum levels of classroom time for pupils – two days a week for primary schools and 50% for secondary schools, with children likely to attend for one week in every two.
The guidance also set out a range of other social distancing and hygiene advice, including school-bag bans and the prospect of children eating lunch in the classroom.
In a separate development, Mr Weir confirmed that the executive would be providing the £12 million required to continue financial support for families eligible for free school meals over the summer.
On Thursday, First Minister Arlene Foster said the powersharing executive’s decision to reduce the social distancing measure to one metre for pupils would allow attendance patterns in schools to return to “close to normality”.
The aim, therefore, at least at this point, is to maximise the amount of time that children will have in the classroomEducation Minister Peter Weir
On Friday, Mr Weir said the aim was to “maximise” the number of schools that could return to full-capacity teaching, but he acknowledged there would be a sizeable number for which that would prove an “impossibility”.
“The sooner we can get back to every child being in the classroom all the time getting full-time classroom… the sooner we are able to reach that point, the better for children, better for parents, and I think teachers are very much in favour of that,” he said.
“But we’re not quite there yet at this stage.
“The aim, therefore, at least at this point, is to maximise the amount of time that children will have in the classroom.”
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show: “The aim must be to get the absolute maximum.
“There will be some schools who would be able to, because of their surroundings, because of the numbers that are there, will effectively be able to return absolutely full time.
“For others that will clearly be a level of practical impossibility to do that all the time. But therefore we want to see where we can get the maximum amount within that.”
Ministers have urged schools to utilise all the space at their disposal to allow them to accommodate the full school population and said where this is not possible they should seek to use nearby community facilities, such as church halls, GAA clubs or Orange Halls.
Principals have voice scepticism at Stormont’s plans, insisting it will not be possible to fit all pupils into most schools in the region, even with the reduced social distancing measure.
Mr Weir suggested funding for substitute teachers would be made available if extra staff were required to teach classes set up outside orthodox classroom locations.
He said the community facilities could also be used for supervised learning if children were only able to attend school on certain days.
The minister also acknowledged there would be an issue around school bus transport in the autumn, given capacity limitations due to the virus.
“There’s still a problem there that does need clearly resolved,” he said.
Graham Gault, the vice president of the National Association of Head Teachers in Northern Ireland, called for clarity.
“School leaders are as keen as the government is to get as many children as possible back into school, but it has to be done safely,” he said.
He said schools would have to weigh up official guidance with their own individual circumstances.
“Even with a reduced social distance of one metre, most primary schools would still struggle to accommodate full classes,” he added.
“We need the government to be very clear about its expectations when it comes to social distancing and about the science behind the decisions it is making.”
Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said the safe and effective re-opening of schools would require a “Herculean effort”.
She said she welcomed the announcement from Stormont but added: “We cannot under-estimate the work that needs to be completed before the maximum number of children can return as safely as possible, whilst understanding that 100% safety cannot be guaranteed only every possible measure taken.”
While pupils will be required to keep one metre apart under Stormont’s plans, the social distancing measure will remain at two metres for teachers.
Schools have been closed in Northern Ireland since March. The traditional summer term would normally finish at the end of June in the region.
Teachers will now return to school on August 17. Key year groups – seven, 12 and 14 – will return a week later on August 24.
The Department of Education intends that the rest of the school population will go back to class at the start of September.
All primary school children, and secondary school children in younger year groups, will have to remain in protective bubbles limited to their own classes when they return.
One further death of someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 was announced in Northern Ireland on Friday.
The death brought to 544 the total number of deaths recorded by the Department of Health – a toll that primarily focuses on fatalities within hospitals.
There were also three new confirmed cases of the virus announced on Friday, taking the total since the outbreak began in the region to 4,866.