The Education Minister has dismissed the notion of all children repeating the school year despite them missing up to seven months of face-to-face teaching.
And he said that despite no date for a return to the classroom yet being agreed, he is expecting all schools to be planning to reopen on March 8.
However, as he considers recovery options, one idea is to open schools up over the summer months with teachers asked to volunteer and get paid for helping students to catch up.
Substitute teachers could be drafted in to enable schools to assist pupils over the summer months
The NI Executive will discuss broader lockdown issues as part of a planned review on February 18, and Peter Weir said education will form part of that process
“I will not do a solo run on schools and the Executive has to take a wider position on a range of the issues on February 18,” he told Stormont’s Education Committee.
“Schools should get a notice of a week and a half with regards to reopening but I do not see that becoming a major problem.
“There is nothing definitive at this point as no decisions have been taken.”
The minster said any plan for all students to repeat the school year are a non-starter and instead he will be focusing on a programme of recovery.
“It is right from an academic and wellbeing point of view that we can get children safely back into schools. I made that clear in presenting the last paper to the Executive before we extended remote learning until March 5,” he said.
“But there was an acceptance in principle from the Executive that there needed to be a recovery programme.
“From a financial point of view it would need to cover an academic level of recovery in terms of a roll out similar to Engage.
“There will need to be a level of recovery over the summer through financially supported voluntary work through schools and other organisations.
“I can be as ambitious as anybody, but realistically that funding is likely to come from Covid money for 2021/22 as part of a broader recovery programme.
“We’re in a position of flat line budgets. If that budget is increased significantly, I can significantly increase a lot of the programmes. I cannot get money that isn’t there.”
He did admit that the current Engage programme, aimed at help pupils catch up with school work, has run into problems.
Funding for the current programme runs out at the end of this financial year, and he said more finance will now need to be accessed.
“Engage has been successful where it has been put into place,” the minister said.
“Where there was a problem is in this current term. A lot of schools had worked out their strategy on the basis of face-to-face teaching. Some of that has been clearly disrupted. It will need to make a level of recovery over the summer through financially supported voluntary work through schools and other organisations. It will need a similar funding for wellbeing.”
Some 50 schools volunteered to help run academic catch-up activities and something similar this year could involve organisations beyond schools and other Stormont departments.
The minister also addressed concerns over transfer test arrangements for next November after AQE said it intends to plan for the test as normal for current P6 pupils.
Mr Weir said he has no objection to hosting the tests at individual primary schools rather than single, larger test centres, but suggested there would be resistance within schools and teaching unions.
“The only issue in terms of the venue side of it would be if tests took place in some primary schools and not others as that would give some advantage to some pupils over others,” he said.
“There is no bar to tests taking pace in primary schools.
“What last year indicated certainly from an academic selection point of view is that if we want to have an entirely level playing field, there isn’t really any alternative other than the transfer test,
“But this year, we’ve had people call to simply banish academic selection without any form of alternative. That shows the difficulties that are there.”
Responding to Sinn Fein MLA Nicola Brogan about the current roll-out of vaccination for special schools, the minister said it would make sense to offer it to all staff and he warned that would put principals “in a difficult position”.
He says he put this to the executive but the Department of Health preferred not to go against the advice of the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation).
He indicated that once the first phase of vaccinations are complete, the JCVI would be looking at delivering vaccinations by profession, but said that no date had yet been set for those arrangements.