Schools that are remaining open to only look after one child of a key worker might be saving a life by doing so, the education minister said.
Peter Weir commended the 400-plus schools which continued to offer supervised learning for vulnerable children and children of key workers across Northern Ireland.
He said the number of parents using the service was relatively low, with between 750 and 1,400 children attending the schools.
Around Â£12 million has been provided for Emergency Childcare provision for key workers as part of new proposals to help support vulnerable children and the children of key workers @healthdpt https://t.co/2LE4v4iQiq pic.twitter.com/NRUprEJPCn— Education NI (@Education_NI) April 9, 2020
The minister told the ad hoc Assembly committee on Covid-19 that about 750 teaching staff and 600 non-teaching staff have been on site to help provide supervision.
He said there were 131 children still looking for a place at a school, but expressed confidence they would be placed “very soon”.
Mr Weir told committee members that all staff teachers and non-teaching staff would continue to be paid through the emergency.
He said there was a proposal for a hardship fund for substitute teachers whose regular work has now ended as a result of Covid-19, but he said that initiative would be dependent on additional funding from the Department of Finance.
The minister appeared before the committee as his department, in conjunction with the Department of Health, launched a new £12 million support package to ensure emergency childcare was also available to key workers.
It will see the provision of a home childcare scheme and financial support for closed daycare facilities to reopen to look after vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Every contribution that every school is making is making a differencePeter Weir
The minister told the committee the schools and teachers had stepped up to the mark to help deal with the crisis.
“The important thing is that when we reach the surge we are not seeing a key worker being denied that opportunity, and I have been taken by the number of schools that are staying open where perhaps in terms of their local school community there is perhaps only one child or one or two key workers that are being facilitated, but that school has felt it to be absolutely worthwhile still to be open for that.
“Every contribution that every school is making is making a difference, and we don’t know, that one individual could make the difference between somebody’s life or somebody’s death.”
He added: “The extent to which schools have stepped up to the mark to provide that service I think is an exemplary to our society.”
Announcing the childcare measures, Mr Weir said: “Our starting position remains unchanged, where it is possible to do so, children should be cared for in their own homes.
“Schools, pre-school education settings, registered daycare facilities and childminders should only be providing care for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
“These new measures will sit alongside the support being provided by educational settings for children of key workers and vulnerable children.
“We want to thank all providers for the work they do to support children and parents. Your continued support and commitment at this critical time will be vital in helping us work together to deal with the challenges facing our society as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Registered childcare provision, pre-school education settings and schools are safe and nurturing environments for children. However, we must ensure that these settings are safe in current circumstances and are following public health advice.
“We acknowledge that a number of daycare and afterschool care settings have already closed, some in response to falling demand, insufficient staffing levels or difficulties in meeting public health guidance, particularly in relation to social distancing requirements.
“My department, in collaboration with the Department of Education, has been working to develop proposals which will meet the needs of our key workers. This includes support for parents, childminders and daycare settings.”