‘Teachers must realise we cannot keep Northern Irish schools empty forever’

Education unions must recognise that the suspension of schools cannot continue forever a DUP MP has said, as his colleague the education minister prepares to address hundreds of teachers today.

Classrooms have been almost wholly emptied, but teachers still provide work online for pupils
Classrooms have been almost wholly emptied, but teachers still provide work online for pupils

DUP MLA Peter Weir will be speaking via video-link to about 300 people at what the Ulster Teachers’ Union calls a “crisis conference” – where it is likely the planned general reopening of schools from August 17 will be a hot topic.

Ahead of the encounter Paul Girvan, DUP MP and Westminster spokesman for education, said that he hopes school staff can show some of the “innovation” displayed by the private sector when it comes to getting schools up and running once again.

He acknowledged some teachers are already hard at work, and praised them for going “over and beyond”.

But asked if he feels there is a disconnect between the attitudes of head teachers and the attitudes of some people in the unions, Mr Girvan told the News Letter last night: “I think there’s an element of that most definitely.

“But I’d hope and pray they do come round to the view that we cannot sustain this forever. Come September ... what are they going to say – we still don’t open?”

He said the fact children can now visit retailers but cannot attend school (and may not be able to do so for months to come) “reeks of double standards”.

He added: “I think that the unions will need to probably understand that we do need to get back, and I do appreciate there might be certain things they want more clarity on. I hope and pray Peter can give them that comfort ...

“Let’s be honest – we’ve seen how the private sector has been innovative in bringing forward things to allow them to get back to work. And I think that there are those within education that need to start to work positively to actually come up with solutions to this problem.”

‘TEACHERS ARE THE FOURTH EMERGENCY SERVICE’

The Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU, which has around 6,000 members) said today’s virtual “crisis conference” will play host to at least three votes for those taking part.

The first calls for a guarantee that “things will change and schools will be adequately resourced, funded and staffed”.

The second will call for “adequate post-pandemic mental health support for pupils and staff”.

The press release from the UTU said only that the third motion was about “workload and assessment”.

Although schools have been emptied, teachers have still been setting work online for pupils.

It is understood that a gradual return of pupils to classrooms from August 17 is intended, rather than all pupils attending at once.

The statement about today’s conference from the UTU quotes its general secretary Jacquie White as saying “the pandemic crisis has seen teachers become the fourth emergency service as they man schools, regardless of their own health worries, to help keep key workers’ children in class so their parents can man the frontline”.

She said today’s conference “is a chance for them to air their fears and demand better going forward”.

She added: “Our children are living through extraordinary times which will leave their mark more deeply on some than others.

“Undoubtedly there will be a mental health fall-out for them and for their teachers as they acclimatise to a new normal following this unprecedented crisis which has taken hundreds of loved ones from us.

“We want assurances that mental health support will be readily available for all who need it, while on a more practical level we also need assurances on logistics.

“What will a new school day look like, for instance? How will special educational needs and assessment issues be handled and what are the workload ramifications for teachers of all this?

“These are the issues on which we want – and deserve – urgent clarity ... There has never been a better time for the minister to listen to those at the chalkface, those who know best, and to do the right thing.”

When Mr Weir had announced August 17 as the date for beginning to reopen schools, the UTU had responded by saying that they believed this date would be merely “voluntary on the part of schools and teachers”, adding: “This raises significant questions around the implications on teachers’ contracts and any holidays booked.”

There have been growing calls in some quarters for schools to return.

Speaking in the Assembly yesterday, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said: “The education minister has announced a date of August 17 for a return to school and a release of restrictions.

“However, it is my opinion that the focus of the education minister ought to be on June 17 and the urgent need to deliver guidance to schools on social distancing, PPE and what the curriculum would look like.”

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