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Return to full time schooling in NI planned as social distance measures reduced

The plans were agreed by Stormont executive ministers on Thursday.

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First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Most pupils are set for a return to full-time education in Northern Ireland in the autumn, after ministers agreed to cut the social distancing measure to one metre.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the move would enable the majority of primary and secondary schools in the region to operate “close to normality”.

While pupils will be required to keep one metre apart, the social distancing measure will remain at two metres for teachers, ministers in the powersharing executive have decided.

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 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.

The announcement was one of a series of lockdown relaxations announced by the executive on Thursday.

Ministers also detailed plans for childcare providers and child minders to resume full services as the summer progresses, with all parents being allowed to use childcare from July, not just key workers.

A business case has also been put together to continue to provide financial assistance to children eligible for free school meals over the summer, a move that will affect about 100,000 young people.

Away from childcare and education, guidance advising people in high-risk categories to shield during lockdown is to be paused at the end of July.

A provisional date for hair salons, barbers and nail bars to reopen has been set for July 6, while church services are set to resume on June 29.

There were no further coronavirus-linked deaths in the region on Thursday, leaving the total recorded by the Department of Health at 543.

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Care workers queue outside Primark in Belfast as it reopens for the first time since lockdown (Brian Lawless/PA)

Care workers queue outside Primark in Belfast as it reopens for the first time since lockdown (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Care workers queue outside Primark in Belfast as it reopens for the first time since lockdown (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mrs Foster said the plans for a return to classrooms would be kept under review during the summer in line with latest data on Covid-19.

“I do very much welcome the progress today as a major step forward towards normality in our schools, because it has been a very tough time for our children, for parents and of course for the teachers who have been supporting them remotely,” she said.

“And I know that everyone wants to get back to classroom teaching.”

She added: “Our objective is to see a full-time return to classroom learning for all pupils as soon as possible when safe to do so.

“In the event that physical distancing is still required when schools return, the executive, following scientific and medical advice, has agreed that schools plan on the basis of one-metre distancing between pupils.

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(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

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(PA Graphics)

“After advice from the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, the Education Minister (Peter Weir) has advised that one-metre distancing will allow the school attendance pattern to return close to normality.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill thanked teachers for their efforts during lockdown.

“The contribution that teachers have made over the course of recent months in the most challenging circumstances has been exceptional and we really, really commend all that you have done in trying to keep our children educated throughout this period, it hasn’t been an easy journey for you all,” she said.

She added: “The objective is to have schools opened on a full-time basis and to make sure that all pupils are back into school for classroom-based learning in a way that is safe to do so.”

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill thanked teachers for their efforts during lockdown (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill thanked teachers for their efforts during lockdown (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill thanked teachers for their efforts during lockdown (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

Education minister Peter Weir said the reopening plans had been agreed following consultation with school leaders and trade unions.

Mr Weir is due to publish new guidance on Friday to help schools plan for the autumn.

“Today represents a significant step forward in clarifying many of the issues that have been raised as we move towards the reopening of schools,” he said.

He added he believed “many schools” would be able to accommodate all pupils each day.

“For those remaining schools where space is an issue, we will work with them to resolve any problems or at least maximise the number of pupils in school,” he said.

Announcing the decision on shielding, Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I have been clear that shielding would not last one minute longer than it needed to.

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The McKenna family has been shielding since March (McKenna family/PA)

The McKenna family has been shielding since March (McKenna family/PA)

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The McKenna family has been shielding since March (McKenna family/PA)

“We have now reached the point where, if the current trends continue, there will be no need for anyone to shield after July 31.”

Elizabeth McKenna’s family have been shielding for more than three months in their north Belfast home, to protect her son David, seven, who is a kidney transplant recipient.

She was hopeful David could now be reunited with his friends at school come the autumn.

“It’s been tough, it has been hard,” she said.

“We’ve done drama lessons on Zoom, we’ve done singing lessons on Zoom, we’ve done phone calls with friends, but obviously there’s none of that social contact, and that’s where David struggles. He would be quite sociable.”

Hairdresser Andrew Mulvenna, who owns a large salon in Belfast city centre, welcomed the date for reopening.

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Salon owner Andrew Mulvenna and a colleague make preparations at his salon in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

Salon owner Andrew Mulvenna and a colleague make preparations at his salon in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Salon owner Andrew Mulvenna and a colleague make preparations at his salon in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

“Like everybody it’s been a very crazy and emotional few months,” he said.

“Business is not going to be the same, that’s for sure, we’re hoping to just break even over the next six months to 12 months.

“I’d be happy with that, anything more than that is a bonus.”

Earlier, Primark became the latest major retailer to open its doors in Northern Ireland.

Queues formed outside stores in Belfast and Londonderry as shoppers arrived well before opening time to secure a place in the line.

In Belfast, the shop opened its doors at 8.20am, an hour and 40 minutes ahead of schedule, to help manage the queue.

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