Donaldson urges Finance Minister to stump up cash for filtration systems in classrooms
A war of words has already started ahead of the recall of the NI Assembly on Monday to debate the mounting crisis in education with a DUP MLA claiming other parties are playing political with education rather than seeking answers to the situation
Christopher Stalford called into question the motive behind the Assembly recall, which will take place a week after schools have returned to face increasing Covid cases and staff shortages and questions over the lack of action to provide air filters for overcrowded classrooms.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has challenged the Finance Minister Conor Murphy to step up and provide the finance needed to help improve school safety.
It’s estimated up to £100 million will need to be found to provide Hepa air filtration for around 20,000 classrooms.
“Our objective is to keep schools open and we are working with school principals. The minister is working urgently on plans to provide air filtration and ventilation equipment to schools,” the DUP leader said.
“That will come at significant cost. My challenge to Sinn Fein is, ‘do you want to keep schools open? We need the Finance Minister to step up and provide the funding.”
The Assembly recall was petitioned by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, and backed by both the SDLP and Alliance.
“The Finance Minister has already said that if finance is needed to ensure school children are safe in schools then that money will be made available,” said Mr Sheehan..
“I can’t give guarantees on behalf of the Finance Minister,” he continued. “I am fairly sure if the Education Minister makes a bid for funding to help ensure our schools can remain open safely, I have absolutely no doubt the Finance Minister will look very favourably on this.”
The Department of Finance confirmed no bid to cover the cost of air filtration and ventilation equipment had been received.
"If a bid is received the Finance Minister will bring recommendations to the Executive,” it added.
Christopher Stalford MLA accused those supporting the recall of doing so for political gain.
“Tabling this motion is not about actually addressing the very serious concerns our teachers have. We hear about ‘the DUP Education Minister, not ‘the Education Minister’ I don’t accept this is not about playing party politics.
“On Monday we will go to Stormont and debate these issues out, but people need to be clear in terms of some of the showboating that’s going on.”
A teachers’ union continued to describe the situation in schools as “dire”.
NASUWT National Official Northern Ireland Justin McCamphill, said almost every school had reached the stage where they are having to move pupils to online learning.
“But the biggest concern is around temperatures in school because the only way to achieve good ventilation is to open windows,” he said. “That is taking temperatures down so far that it’s very uncomfortable both for teachers and pupils.”
Mitigations in schools have not changed since before Christmas, with the Department of Education maintaining keeping schools open is the priority.
“The EA secured more than 11,500 C02 monitors and approximately 95% of schools have now been provided with monitors, with a further 5,000 monitors expected imminently,” the Department said.
“Good ventilation, along with other measures can help mitigate the risk of transmission. Natural ventilation, such as opening windows can be effective at reducing the risk from virus in the air.
“The EA has ordered 100 Air Filtration Units. These will be deployed where specific remedial action to improve ventilation is either not possible immediately or will have a lead time to address.”