Parents still in the dark: Uncertainty for pupils and schools goes on as final term closes in

Stressed parents across NI are still in the dark about when their children will return to school – with the Province falling increasingly behind the rest of the UK, despite plummeting Covid rates.

After repeated promises of progress on the matter, yesterday the Stormont Executive put off tired home-schooling parents once again, saying it would not make any decision about when pupils in P4 and above will return until next Tuesday.

Education Minister Peter Weir told the News Letter last night he wants “all” children back in school but that other Executive ministers are not yet on the same page.

“I want to see children all back in school,” he said. “That was part of my paper to the NI Executive on Thursday. I had the support of my DUP colleagues to progress that today [Thursday], but other ministers were not in that space yet. This proposal will now be considered on Tuesday again.”

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill pictured at a press conference in Dungannon yesterday. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

He added: “I want to give teachers, parents and pupils proper notice so they can plan and prepare but that was not the view of the other ministers.

“I understand the frustrations of parents, teachers and pupils. We are well able to put in place mitigations to reduce the risk of spread.”

The minister said the kitchen table is “no replacement” for a classroom where pupils can benefit from professional teachers. He added: “We must consider the cost to children’s education.”

He was glad the Executive backed his proposal to keep P1 to P3s in school after next week, he said.

However, the education minister added that he was was “disappointed a wider decision was not made” for pupils from P4 and above, including secondary schools.

Students in years 12 to 14, who will be awarded qualification results this summer, will return to full time face-to face teaching with effect from March 22.

The only pupils currently in school are those from pre-school up to P3, the Executive deciding yesterday that they will remain in school until the start of the Easter break.

The postponement of further decisions once again will spark concerns among parents, with children largely absent all year so far, and with the last term of the school year only around four weeks away.

Northern Ireland is trailing significantly behind the rest of the British Isles in returning pupils to school, despite an R number consistently below one for some time.

Writing in the News Letter this week, former barrister and UK director of the Evangelical Alliance Peter Lynas noted how far behind NI is on the issue compared to the rest of the British Isles.

Writing in a personal capacity, he noted that all children returned to school in England on March 8; that in Scotland, some went back in February with all primary school children expected to be in class – with all secondary school children in part-time – by next week.

Wales are following a similar pattern, he noted, and in the Republic – where vaccination rates are much lower – some primary school pupils are already in, with all expected to return next week.

Speaking at a ministerial press conference yesterday, First Minister Arlene Foster said her party would have liked to have moved quicker.

“I would have liked to have moved a bit further in relation to the other cohorts but what we’re doing is the [Executive] task force is looking at this in a strategic way and we will make announcements on Tuesday around the other cohorts,” she said, as reported by PA.

But Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the return of schools had to be “safe and sustainable”.

She said ministers wanted to avoid a scenario of moving too quickly and having to halt face-to-face learning again.

Ms O’Neill said ministers were assessing the impact of the return of P1 to P3s and also looking at evidence from places where children have already been back in classes for a period, such as Scotland.

“The Executive has prioritised the return to school and we want to see that done as soon as it’s safe to do so,” she said. “We have made progress today, we did say this would be a phased and a staged process.

“It’s really important that whenever children return to school that they stay there.”

Ms O’Neill said it was important that teachers, parents and children were all given plenty of notice on when they were likely to go back.

“I’m hoping that we at least at the very minimum will be able to give dates if, all being well, at the start of next week,” she said.

The British Medical Association also called for a ‘wait and see’ approach to Covid infection rates before sending more pupils back to school.

BMA NI chairman Dr Tom Black said last night: “In terms of the schools, it’s very straightforward. We have a plan for P1 to P3 and years 12 to 14. We should now wait to see what effect that has on the R-number and the transmission of infections.”

He added: “You have to take each step carefully and reassess based on the data, and if we see a change in numbers with these new provisions then the Executive will have to rethink their plans.”

TUV East Londonderry spokesperson Jordan Armstrong said that he remains convinced that “all school children should be back in the classroom today”.

He added that with a falling R-number, falling Covid patients in hospitals and a “world-leading” vaccination programme “the fact that any pupils are still off school is indefensible”.

The first and deputy first ministers said yesterday they expect to announce some other relaxation of pandemic restrictions next Tuesday.

Arlene Foster suggested there could be easements for outdoor sports but Michelle O’Neill said it was unlikely that any changes would come into effect before Easter.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy also announced yesterday the business rates holiday is to be extended by a further 12 months at a cost of £230 million.

At yesterday’s meeting, ministers also agreed a separate time-limited support package for travel agents, with grants of up to £10,000.

Meanwhile, the deaths of nine more people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were announced by Stormont’s Department of Health yesterday, along with another 223 positive cases of the virus.

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