The education minister is right to prioritise keeping Northern Ireland schools open

News Letter editorial of Wednesday January 5 2021:

By Editorial
Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 1:10 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 1:12 am
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union say they want schools to stay open.

At the same time, however, they are facing a staffing crisis due to Omicron isolating.

There is no doubt that the current wave of Covid is causing major staffing problems in sectors in which people cannot work from home.

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Interestingly, though, the impact is much less severe in workplaces where people can indeed do their job from home. This is because so far Omicron has been causing much milder symptoms than scientists had feared it might, and plenty of people are working through it as if it is the cold.

It is not the cold of course, even though some experts hope Covid will fizzle out into something little worse than the cold. At the same time, medical experts feel they cannot take the risk of a much more dangerous strain of the virus emerging.

These are all legitimate concerns, but we cannot keep modelling on worst case scenarios. If we do that, then great damage will be done to whole industries and to children’s education, than if we had modelled on more likely scenarios than worst-case. Thus, while some low probability scenarios might be prevented in which Covid causes great damage to some vulnerable groups in society, we might nonetheless be acting in ways that cause lesser per capita damage to people who live or work or operate in spheres worst affected by lockdown, but greater absolute damage to society (given the very large numbers of such affected groups).

Above all, there is the injustice of damaging the schooling of people early in their lives, at a crucial age of their development, when they are at minimal risk of bad Covid outcomes, in order to minimise risks to far older groups, often near end of life. Kids in Northern Ireland have missed enough of the classroom.

The NAHT is right to want schools open, and the Education minister Michelle McIlveen right to prioritise that.

If that means curbing Omicron isolation periods to ensure more teachers can cover class, perhaps that needs to happen.

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