Prioritising the vaccination of teachers in Northern Ireland can help get schools back open to all pupils sooner, MLAs have been told.
Teaching unions told an Assembly committee that while all teachers should be prioritised, those working in special schools should be the first within the education sector to be offered the Covid-19 jab.
Education committee members also heard a union call for classroom sizes to be reduced to 12 pupils until society returns closer to normality when the vaccine programme is rolled out among the wider community.
Mainstream schools in the region are currently only open to vulnerable children and those of key workers, with the vast majority of pupils being taught at home until the mid-term break.
With hospitals warning that the peak of intensive care admissions is still to come the prospect of an extension to the remote learning period, potentially to Easter, has not been ruled out.
Special schools are able to stay open under the current coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland.
Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT union told committee members that teachers were at greater risk of contracting the virus than the average member of the public.
“We are calling for all teachers and education staff to be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine, we believe this measure will save lives but it will also help get children back to school safer and sooner than we would otherwise,” he said.
“The current restriction and the closures that we have had have been necessary but they have also been regrettable.
“Teachers are doing their best to deliver the curriculum online but that is never going to replace face to face teaching.”
He added: “There is one group of teachers who are particularly at risk and that’s teachers and school staff within the special school sector.
“Within the special school sector we have a big crossover with heath in terms of the function of the schools and some of things that are carried out.
“Two metre social distance or indeed one metre social distance just doesn’t happen within special schools.
“We have many young people who can’t socially distance, who can’t wear face masks, so we believe it’s right and proper that teachers in special schools are treated in the same way as all those who work within health and social care as they are putting themselves at high risk for the greater good and to ensure that vulnerable young people have respite.”
He added: “If we prioritise the vaccine everyone within education will be back at work quicker and more safely.”
Scott Naismith, the principal of Methodist College grammar school in Belfast, told the committee he supported the calls for teachers to be prioritised for vaccinations.
He said if education minister Peter Weir opted for a phased return of pupils to the class then those in more senior years should be prioritised.
“If the minister is looking at a phased return then priority should be given to those pupils in years 12, 13 and 14,” he said.
“This will allow schools to conduct assessments in conditions that will inform the awarding of grades and importantly continue with the learning that will equip them with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to move to the next level of learning.”
Mark Langhammer from the National Education Union said when schools do reopen to all pupils again it was vital that class sizes are reduced.
He suggested pupils could attend school on certain days in a blended model of classroom and remote learning to keep the numbers with the building down.
Mr Langhammer also called for the one metre social distance guidance for pupils to be doubled to two metres.
He said the size of protective bubbles should also be reduced to limit the numbers who had to self-isolate when positive cases are detected.
“Obviously we all want to get back to normal as soon as possible, both in schools and our in the wider society,” he said.
“We have a vaccination programme on the way and hopefully, touch wood, the weather will change.
“So we’re talking about a window of two or three months here.
“We think, first of all, that there must be there should be many fewer people in schools, in particular we think class sizes should be significantly lower.
“We think the Danish ratio of one to 10 may not be achievable but we should be looking at one to 12, something like that.”
I find at this stage that it is absolutely beyond acceptable that we're sitting this week and we don't have a confirmed plan around all school staff being added to the priority for vaccination listSinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan
On the vaccination call, Sinn Fein committee member Karen Mullan said it was not acceptable that teachers had not been prioritised.
“I find at this stage that it is absolutely beyond acceptable that we’re sitting this week and we don’t have a confirmed plan around all school staff being added to the priority for vaccination list and that we don’t particularly even at this stage have started the vaccine for our special school staff,” she said.
DUP member William Humphrey said Mr Weir also supported the early vaccination of teachers.
However, Mr Humphrey highlighted that the vaccination priority list was not set by the Stormont executive, rather the UK-wide Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
The DUP MLA said a joint call from ministers across the UK regions might bring a focus to the issue of teacher vaccinations.
“The decision around that is by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation and that’s where the pressure needs to be applied,” he said.
“We need all the education and health ministers across the UK jurisdictions to be making that case and I think that would be hugely important and helpful.”