Peter Weir: Return of all pupils to classroom ‘a step towards normal’
Education Minister Peter Weir has hailed the return of all school pupils to classrooms from Monday as an “important step” on the road back to normality.
Mr Weir, in an exclusive interview with the News Letter, said young people and children have been amongst the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In different ways, the two groups who have suffered most through Covid, in my estimation would be a lot of the elderly folk in our society in terms of the impact on them through isolation and also, obviously, in terms of their vulnerability and in terms of death — but also our young people,” the minister said.
“I think Monday will be a tremendously good day for society.
“For the rest of us, those of us of working age basically, there of course has been frustration but the biggest impact has been on the elderly and the very young. That’s why, in particular, Monday will be a very good day.”
The first pupils to return to the classroom since Christmas were those aged up to Primary Three, who made their return just over a month ago on March 8.
Other year groups returned on a phased basis in the intervening time.
The only pupils still to get back to face-to-face teaching in Northern Ireland are those in the year 8-11 age groups.
Mr Weir said the phased return has gone “quite well” so far.
“There will always be the odd bump along the way,” he added.
“You will still get situations where there will be positive tests, self-isolation and that kind of thing but on the whole this has gone pretty successfully so far. I believe that will continue. In general things have rolled out successfully.”
Welcoming the landmark of all pupils being back in, the minister said: “I think it’s certainly a very significant step on the road back to normality.
“While there’s been great work done on the ground by schools, by teachers and by parents there’s no substitute for that face-to-face teaching. That’s from an academic point of view, but also in terms of their mental health the impact has been enormous.”
He continued: “For each of the openings of the schools sectors, from the very youngest and so on, I’ve tried to get around as many schools as possible and it’s clear that they’re very keen to get back to teaching. But actually the relief and the delight has been there from young people to get back in a controlled, safe environment seeing their friends. It’s an enormous weight off their shoulders.
“That we’re now in a position to get everyone back, albeit with a range of mitigations, is a tremendous advantage to our young people and society as a whole.”
He said the data on the spread of coronavirus since the first pupils returned last month has been positive.
“I know it is still relatively early days but we are still seeing the data moving in the right direction.
“We are still in a position, and I know we can’t get complacent, where the latest figures have shown a further drop in transmission.”