Teaching unions ‘concerned’ by suggestion schools should return and disregard Covid advice

Northern Ireland teachers unions have urged caution in the face of indications that politicians are considering a possible earlier return to school than was first mooted.

By Gemma Murray
Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 4:03 pm

Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT said he did not believe that the decision to review the opening of schools was “tenable”.

He said: “I do think this is political calculation.

“I don’t think it is tenable that having listened to the advice from the Chief Medical Officer based on scientific data, that we would overrule it at the last minute, and overrule it primarily because Boris has made a decision for England.

Sitting a test

“I don’t understand why the First Minister now has a renewed trust in the leadership of Boris.”

Earlier this week First Minister Arlene Foster said she hoped the Stormont Executive will revisit the dates for reopening schools.

She said she wanted to give the public optimism when the path out of lockdown in the region is revealed next Monday but cautioned that this must be the last.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a four-stage plan for exiting lockdown on Monday evening.

Empty Classroom

The first stage includes the return to school for all pupils in England on March 8.

In Northern Ireland, some primary school pupils will return to class on March 8, with some older post-primary school children on March 22, but there has been no date given for the full return of the wider school population.

Ahead of a meeting of the Executive Mrs Foster said she hoped that could be revisited.

She said Education Minister Peter Weir’s preferred option was to have all children back at school on March 8.

“Unfortunately our health advisers didn’t think that that was the right way forward and I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward, but I hope we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own personal experience that the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom,” she said this week.

The spokesman for the largest teaching union in NI, Mr McCamphill added that teachers “know that remote learning can never replace learning in the classroom face to face, but they also want to avoid the situation that we had before Christmas where pupils and teachers were in and out like yoyo’s and then isolating”.

He said: “They want to avoid a fourth lockdown.

“Therefore teachers support a phased return.

“There will be different views around which group should return first but certainly in principle the majority of teachers support the idea of a phased return.

“And given that certain year groups have not been decided on, we should continue to plan on the basis that it is nursery, Primary 1 -3 and Years 12, 13 and 14 that will be returning prior to Easter.”

“This is not something that is going to be fixed by a summer of extra learnng.

“It will take years and a lot of investment in education so children can catch up.

“I suppose the context is that over the last few years we have less teachers and far more pupils so that makes it harder and harder.”

Jacquie White, General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union added: “No-one wants to see the resumption of normal school life more than teachers whose lives, along with those of their pupils and their families, have been upended for almost a year now.

“However, the phased return of the youngest pupils from March 8, is certainly preferable to what some are calling a ‘big bang’ return of more if not all students earlier.

“We urge our politicians to be steered only by the scientific evidence which must prove that it is safe for children and teachers to return.

“A phased approach means we could assess its impact before allowing more students into class and thus better manage the situation.”

Ms White adds that “our worry is that any recklessness in getting children back behind desks could trigger another spike in Covid infections and prolong disruption of their education”.

“It would seem counterintuitive to throw away the progress we seem to be making and risk schools closing again. This would be the worst possible scenario for everyone,” she said.

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