Teaching unions have reacted angrily to the suggestion that the dates for the reopening of schools should be revisited by the Executive.
Arlene Foster wants to put the dates, which would see those in primary one to three only returning on March 8, back on the agenda ahead of the Executive’s review of lockdown restrictions next Monday.
Unions and head teachers said the suggestion throws more confusion at pupils, parents and teachers about the plan for pupils to return to face to face teaching.
The Education Minister has maintained his preferred option remains to bring all pupils, in primary and post primary, back to the classroom in two weeks' time.
Peter Weir also suggested health advisers are being “a bit overcautious” in their advice regarding reopening schools.
“There is a level of caution around taking small steps,” he said.
“We’ve seen for instance last night, the approach taken by Chris Whitty in England, who indicates there is a relatively low risk.
“We want to make sure we don’t disadvantage our students in Northern Ireland. I want to make sure our students are protected. Schools themselves represent a relatively safe place.
“I think the approach is maybe a bit over cautious.
“What really matters with the vaccine is preventing deaths and preventing serious hospitalisations and we have seen from the study in Scotland, that it has been highly effective in being able to do that. I think that does give us an opportunity to revisit.
“I think there is a strong case we need to absolutely prioritise the education of our young people and get them back as soon as possible.”
Mr Weir said he wanted to see “movement across the board” in getting pupils back into classrooms more quickly.
“With some of the emerging evidence we’ve seen this week in Scotland... I think there is a strong case that we need to prioritise the education of our young people and get them back as soon as possible.”
Mr Weir said quick movement was particularly needed on issues around primary schools.
“We’ve got the immediate return of P1 to P3 - I don’t see why there can’t be immediate movement for the rest of primary schools,” he said.
“The damage that is being done, both from an educational point of view but from a wider societal point of view in terms of issues around mental health and the long-term future of our young people, are also critical.
“There’s nowhere that’s entirely risk-free but I think [schools] represent a relatively safe place.
Suggestions that the Executive should revisit the school return plan announced last week, have been described as “defying logic” and “irresponsible” by the NASUWT union.
“On Thursday the Executive made a decision based on advice from the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer,” said NASUWT National Official Justin McCamphill.
“It is irresponsible for the First Minister to publicly undermine the Executive's heath advisers in this way.
“A plan was put in place last Thursday that can provide a basis for a safe return to school, ditching this plan simply to match the position in England would be a mistake.
“While there isn’t a consensus in the profession in relation to the current plan, the focus now has to be on making that plan operable and as safe as possible.
“Teachers have many questions around workload and safe working practices which must be answered in the coming days, but only a staged approach will allow for proper monitoring of the impact of reopening. We cannot repeat the mistakes that were made before, our children and young people deserve better than a boom-and-bust approach to Covid.”
Dr Graham Gault, president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that school leaders remain very eager to see all children and young people back at school.
But he urged caution about revisiting the plan, which would see P1-P3 back on March 8, then return to remote learning on March 22 to allow exam year pupils in post primary to attend for a week ahead of the Easter break.
“If the comments by the First Minister are more than just political gesturing, we require the medical evidence to demonstrate that it will be safe, details on how school leaders will be supported, particularly with regards to their workload,” he said.
“Then we need details on what further workable safety measures will be put in place, details of the prioritisation for all front-line education staff for vaccination and a clear explanation of what serious restrictions are going to be imposed on wider society to enable our schools to be opened for all children in a sustainable way. Our young people do not need to come back to onsite learning, just to be sent off again, and they do not need to come back just to return to the endless cycle of isolations that they endured prior to Christmas.”
Gerry Murphy, Northern Secretary of the INTO union, said the phased opening as outlined by the Minister and Department of Education last week represents the most sensible approach towards the full reopening of our schools.
“Such an approach represents the best way forward in light of the current medical and scientific advice and school leadership teams will have already begun to apply themselves to carrying out the necessary planning to give effect to the phased re-opening,” he said.
“The suggestion from the First Minister that we turn this cautious and careful approach on its head is at odds with the existing scientific and medical advice and serves only to further increase the uncertainty for our children and young people, their parents and teachers.
“INTO is of the view that a carefully managed phased re-opening of schools will greatly assist in ensuring our schools are as safe as they can be whilst reducing the danger of a further closure of schools in the time ahead.”
Speaking after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his lockdown exit plan, with March set for the return all schoolchildren in England, Mrs Foster said she hoped ministers could “revisit” that timetable.
“The Education Minister brought a paper forward last week - his preferred way forward was to have all children back at school on 8 March,” she said.
“Unfortunately our health advisers didn’t think that that was the right way forward.
“I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward but I hope that we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own experience the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom.
“I’m not a teacher - teachers are professionally trained and therefore it is vital that we get our young people back into schools as soon as possible.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Northern Ireland’s health officials had advised a slow and steady approach to schools that the executive had taken a “very responsible approach”.
Braniel Primary School principal Diane Dawson said children needed to get back to school but that the decision about how soon to allow that should be based on evidence from Northern Ireland’s health experts.
“It can’t be done because Boris Johnson makes an announcement five days after our executive have made a decision based on our science.”
“It is not good enough to make a decision... and not consult with us to respond fully and communicate properly to our parents, and now to say it’s going to be revisited - on the basis of what?
“Someone needs to start talking to school leaders.”
Keith Wysner, the principal of Whiteabbey Primary School, said there needed to be “sensible caution and we need to progress in a sustainable way”.
And Maire Thompson, the principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast, said that having pupils return to classrooms in phases was a “much better approach to this.”