Chief medical officer Professor Michael McBride said he appreciates that children have paid “a huge price” in terms of their education and wellbeing since the pandemic began last year.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, Prof McBride said: “There are some key pieces of evidence that we don’t yet have. but we will continue to provide our best advice to the executive in relation to how we control this wave of Omicron.
“But we also need to bear in mind the huge price that the children have paid during this pandemic in terms of their education, and also in terms of their mental health and wellbeing.”
Prof McBride said the disruption to education has been “particularly damaging for those children from lower socio-ecomonic groups,” and added: “And it has been particularly challenging for parents and teachers in relation to supporting remote learning.
“It is not the same as face-to-face learning and we need to have a balanced and proportionate approach. But ultimately those will be decisions for ministers and the executive.”
Chief scientific officer Prof Ian Young added: “Previously, during the epidemic stage, we have considered the effects of various forms of staggered return, or partial return, to schools and that was something that was rejected as an intervention.
“Certainly, we know that a return to schools does have some impact, in terms of the course of the epidemic, but it’s not straightforward to analyse and there is a complex interaction between whether schools are open and whether other sectors and the economy are open in terms of the impact of school closures, full or partial, on transmission.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the SDLP’s education spokesperson, Daniel McCrossan, called for an emergency plan to ensure that schools can be kept open following the Christmas break.
Mr McCrossan said it is important that Education Minister Michelle McIlveen acts now to prevent disruption.
“Our schools are already under extreme pressure and the alarm bell has been sounded about the Omicron variant.
“We need to do everything we can now to ensure our schools can reopen safely in the new year,” Mr McCrossan added.