Northern Ireland’s education minister has said he cannot give a date for when schools will be closed.
Peter Weir said that when schools close over coronavirus, it will not be short term, but potentially until the end of August.
He said that the taking of children out of school and pre-schools would lead to “enormous disruption to the health service and take health care workers out of the system just at the time we need them”.
Several schools have been denied permission for exceptional closures by the Department of Education.
Many are using their allocation of discretionary closure days to close their doors to pupils anyway as the number of cases of Covid-19 multiplies.
The five main teaching unions have written to Mr Weir asking him to set a date for closures.
Appearing before Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday, Mr Weir emphasised that it is a “fluid situation” in “unprecedented times”.
He insisted he does not have a “doctrinaire position” and wants to be “guided entirely by the scientific and medical evidence”.
Permanent secretary Derek Baker described coronavirus as “now the single issue” in the department.
He said staff are “withdrawing from all non-essential work” to focus on the impact of the virus.
Mr Weir said there will come a point at which schools will need to be closed, revealing that teachers are currently preparing material so that education can continue after closures.
“It’s important that in this horrific crisis that people don’t miss out on their education,” he added.
Frankly there are no easy choices and we are moving in a fluid environmentPeter Weir, Northern Ireland education minister
He outlined some of the factors under consideration in terms of school closures, which included childcare, free school meals and state examinations.
The minister said the “preferred option would be for schools to continue to operate normally, and that exams would be able to be held”, but added there is a “realisation that may well not be practical”.
Committee chairman Chris Lyttle (Alliance) pressed Mr Weir to work to provide a date.
“I can only go on the best advice that I can get, I completely agree that as we chart a way ahead the more certainty that is there, and the more that we can actually phase timing in relation to this to indicate where there can be then dates for the closures, it will be at a point at which schools will not be taking in pupils and then a period where there can be some additional level of preparation for staff,” he said.
“As part of any picture will have to be also the impact we have on the frontline medical staff and there will be a bit of work done to try and ensure there are provisions … and done as best as they possibly can.”
Mr Lyttle earlier asked Mr Weir to clarify the medical advice he said he is taking over school closures.
The minister responded by saying advice was from Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, the Public Health Agency and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
“Realistically when children are removed from school … you are talking about the end of August … the chief medical officer said now is not the time to do that,” he told the committee.
Mr Weir added that there are “likely to be large numbers of deaths”.
“If we can try to keep that to a minimum, my overriding duty is to try and preserve life … but frankly there are no easy choices and we are moving in a fluid environment,” he said.
Referring to the Republic of Ireland, where schools were told to close for two weeks, Mr Weir said such a break in light of a “long-term virus … isn’t going to do much good”.
“Two weeks is a token gesture,” he said.