Parents need to know school reopening plans this week, says Education Minister Peter Weir as he prepares to bring proposals to the Stormont Executive

Parents need to know this week if children returning to the classroom will stay in school until Easter, Education Minister Peter Weir has said.

Education Minister Peter Weir during a visit to Primary 3 class at Springfield Primary School in Belfast yesterday as Primary 1 through 3 children returned to school
Education Minister Peter Weir during a visit to Primary 3 class at Springfield Primary School in Belfast yesterday as Primary 1 through 3 children returned to school

Mr Weir said he intends to put specific reopening proposals to ministers this week. The Executive is due to meet today, and again on Thursday.

The minister, in an interview with the News Letter following a visit to Springfield Primary School to greet pupils in P1-3 on their first day back after lockdown, also said the Stormont Executive must show through its actions rather than “rhetoric” that the return of face-to-face education is a priority as Northern Ireland moves out of lockdown.

Mr Weir, who had previously told Executive colleagues that March 8 was the preferred return date for all pupils before agreeing to the compromise position of the current phased return, said he hopes to be able to “tie things down in terms of dates” through his proposals to the Executive this week.

Asked if he believed other parties were sincere in saying that they are prioritising education as part of the plans to move Northern Ireland out of lockdown, the DUP minister said: “I don’t particularly want to try and pointscore on this issue but what I would say is that I think it’s important that the Executive as a whole ensures that its actions, as we move ahead over the next short period of time, match the rhetoric – that saying education is a priority is actually something that is implemented in practice, rather than something that is acknowledged.”

Asked if he could provide parents with even vague or aspirational timeframes for the return of schools, he said: “I think part of the idea of putting propositions to the Executive is to try as far as possible to tie things down in terms of dates.”

Mr Weir also suggested that it is “realistic” to expect all primary school pupils to be back in classrooms before Easter.

“It is realistic but it will depend upon the Executive agreeing to it, because it’s not the current plan,” he said.

“Why do I say it’s realistic? Because at least from the point of view of making the argument, we are in a position where across all of the neighbouring jurisdictions they will have all their pupils back before Easter. But it has not been agreed by the Executive so I am certainly not giving anyone a guarantee in that regard. I am giving a guarantee that it is something that I would like to see.”

As things stand, pupils up to primary three are back in the classroom but only until the end of next week. After that, pupils in the GCSE and A-level year groups will be return while the younger pupils go back to remote learning.

That approach has been likened by some – including the TUV leader Jim Allister and Mr Weir’s party colleague Sammy Wilson – to the “hokey cokey”.

Asked if he felt that assessment was fair, the minister said: “I wouldn’t want to label things. What we’ve got to in terms of the current arrangement is as far as could be got a couple of weeks ago. I think there is good sense in having continuity, particularly as regards younger children.

“I think it can be very stressful if they’re in and out. My preference would be that now they are back they remain in.

“In terms of any proposition I put to the Executive, that will be part of that. I think there’s a strong argument that, really, to be dragging them out for a week doesn’t make that much sense.”

Asked when parents might find out if those younger pupils will be able to stay in school until the Easter break, he said: “I think we need a decision, even if it’s not the right decision, in a matter of days. We need final resolution of that this week. I will be trying to get that.

“I will be putting forward propositions to the Executive but that needs to be accepted to be on the agenda for the Executive, so I would hope that before the end of this week we would get a resolution to that issue – and maybe more as well.”

On the specific timings of any full return, Mr Weir said: “I think part of the idea of putting propositions to the Executive is to try as far as possible to tie things down in terms of dates. I know there’s always a mixture between the fluidity of the situation because of the public health side of it, and balanced against that is trying to give as much certainty as possible.

“So I hope to be able to tie down in the near future as much certainty as possible. We know the P1s, P2s, and P3s are back today (Monday). We know that the qualification years are back in a fortnight’s time. It’s about trying to get, first of all, those happening without any reversal but also looking at the remainder of primary school and secondary school children how quickly we can get those back as well.”

Asked what steps he was taking to try and get pupils back sooner, he said his department would work with the Department of Health on measures to mitigate any spread of coronavirus as pupils return.

“If we can ease the situation by putting mitigations in place, those will be done,” he said.

“It’s not an ideal situation but as post-primary pupils go back face coverings will be there and we’re getting marshalls lined up to make sure that is done on school transport.”

Asked to clarify what he meant by ‘marshalls’, the minister said: “Maybe marshalls is too strong a word, but there is a requirement there for older children to wear face coverings when they’re on buses. There would be, I suppose, spot checks [to ensure compliance].”

He continued: “We want to send send clear messaging out to parents around the school gates, and we will be working with [the Department of] Health around testing.

“ I will be putting propositions in terms of the return to schools, and the next steps, in the very near future. As I’ve indicated, one element of that will be the continuity for the P1 to P3s but the aim’s got to be everybody back into schools. It’s about trying to persuade those on the Executive and our colleagues in [the Department of] Health that that’s the best way forward.”