Education Minister Peter Weir hopes for fast-tracked return to classes in NI

Northern Ireland’s Education Minister has expressed hope that plans to return children to classes in the region can be accelerated.

Peter Weir visited a primary school in Belfast on Monday as thousands of P1-P3 pupils from across Northern Ireland returned to classes for the first time since December. Pre-school and nursery children also returned.

Under Stormont’s phased plan for schools, the next pupils to resume face to face learning are secondary school pupils in key exam years, year groups 12-14, on March 22.

The P1-P3, nursery and pre-school children are supposed to resume remote learning on that week to minimise the impact on community infection rates of the secondary school return.

Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir during a visit to Primary 3 class at Springfield Primary School in Belfast as Primary 1 through 3 children return to school. Picture date: Monday March 3, 2021.

The Easter holidays begin the week after that, but no date has yet been confirmed for the return of the wider school population.

Mr Weir said he would be proposing to executive colleagues that the plan to bring young children back out of classes on March 22 be cancelled.

He also expressed hope that all primary school pupils would be able to get back into a classroom before the Easter holidays.

On the visit to Springfield Primary School in west Belfast he said: “It would be great for instance if we could get all our primary school children back before Easter, that will ultimately be in the hands of the executive.”

The minister added: “I think we need to see continuity of learning. Obviously, the steps that we’ve taken so far are the steps that we can only be taking at this point with regard to health.

“But I think we’re in a fast-moving situation so I’ll be bringing proposals forward which will say actually, particularly for P1 to P3, they should carry on throughout and I think we don’t want to see any more disruption to our young people’s education.”

He said health officials would need to consider this proposal and his suggestion that other primary school year groups – P4-P7 – also return to classes this month.

The minister added: “While there’s been lots of great work that’s being done by remote learning by schools, lots of great work, tireless work being done by parents, you know there’s no substitute for children being directly in school themselves on a face-to-face basis.”

Mr Weir also said he would be working with health officials to develop testing procedures in secondary schools.

He highlighted concerns in England around the number of false positives reported by lateral flow testing systems.

“Already testing is rolled out and has started within special schools and I think the next step is the work that will be ongoing particularly in post primary schools,” he said.

“I think we need to make sure just the detail of that is got right, because I know that, for instance, within England there’s been some concerns about whether that creates a high level of false positives.

“So we need to make sure that whatever methodology we use, and that’s why we’re taking the advice from our health professionals, is one that can aid children to be directly in schools and make sure that we’re not creating any additional barriers beyond what is needed.”

Vulnerable children and the children of key workers have been able to attend school since January.

Special schools have been allowed to open to all their pupils during the current lockdown.

The Stormont Executive published its Pathway to Recovery plan for exiting wider lockdown restrictions last week.

It sets out an emergence from lockdown in stages, described as lockdown, cautious first steps, gradual easing, further easing, and preparing for the future.

The blueprint does not include any target dates, with ministers instead insisting decisions on moving between stages will be based on scientific and medical evidence, not the calendar.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said ministers hope the process of exiting lockdown will be well advanced by June 10.