Carla Lockhart is right: pupils are being damaged by school closures and we need to get them back in class in March

News Letter editorial from Tuesday February 9 2021:

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Last year schools were closed for an unacceptably long time in Northern Ireland.

Some schools closed in mid March, in tandem with Michelle O’Neill’s demand for classrooms to be emptied but in defiance of the Department of Education. All schools were closed by the end of that month.

There were strong educational and societal arguments to get classes back shortly after Easter, as happened in parts of Europe, but that notion never got traction in NI.

At times the matter was discussed as if all teachers were at great risk from returning to the classroom when, in fact, the risk increased with age. Stormont never examined possible solutions to that danger gradient, such as offering redundancies to older teachers who were happy to bring forward their retirement, and creating teaching openings to younger trainees who were keen to launch their career. Such young teachers were at very low risk of a bad reaction to Covid, and their pupils even less so, the youngest children at least risk of all.

Schools were out until the end of the summer, and did not even make up for lost time by returning in August.

In fairness to Stormont MLAs, there came to be a cross party recognition that the education of children had suffered from this long closure, the poorest kids most of all.

Exam year pupils were also badly damaged.

Yet political consensus to keep the schools open has gone. Now there is a danger that the extended Christmas closure of schools will become the norm, and will drift on for months.

Carla Lockhart MP is right to push for this matter to be raised at Stormont. Blanket closure is not sustainable, as the DUP MP says. Scotland is moving towards reopening some primary school classes. So should Northern Ireland.

The vaccine rollout across the UK is advancing very well. A return to normal life is some way off but let’s put schools at the helm of that return.

And let’s get teaching and school staff vaccinated so that we can begin that process.

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Alistair Bushe