NI Children’s Commissioner highlights significant gaps in Department of Education advice to schools
Commenting on the most recent advice, ‘New School Day – Revised’ issued by the Department of Education on 13th August , Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People said:
“I welcome the fact that schools will be re-opening for all pupils over the next week or so. The well-being and education of children and young people have suffered significantly during the pandemic and it is critical that schools re-open safely for all.
“This week I issued further advice to the Department of Education to address the gaps that still remain in the guidance it has issued to schools to allow them to so this. The range, scale, and timing of revisions to this guidance has understandably led to consternation and anxiety.”
In wide ranging advice the Commissioner lists the gaps that remain and what is required to resolve these. It addresses issues including mask wearing, children’s and parents’ concerns about schools reopening, risk assessments, managing positive cases and outbreaks in schools, behavioural policies, social distancing, isolating symptomatic children, transport and school meals.
The Commissioner continued: “A large part of my updated advice deals with the challenges for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) particularly those attending Special Schools. With updated guidance for these schools only issued on Monday they will not have had time to fully reinstate the necessary services and support, and consequently, pupils return to school has been delayed.
“It remains unclear how additional resource will be provided to make sure every child gets the education and care that meets their assessed needs. Whilst being fully mindful of the additional complexities in re-opening special schools, with the safety and wellbeing of children and young people being of paramount importance, these children have gone months without the educational, therapeutic and social supports provided by their schools and Teachers. It is essential they are able to return to school; this must be facilitated for all pupils with SEN and disability by the end of next week.”
She concluded, “Further clarification is required on a range of issues including:
the wearing of face masks by children and the disciplinary measures in place for those who do not or cannot wear them, and who is responsible for purchasing them;
how the Department plans to ensure schools have taken all appropriate steps to minimise the risk of transmission;
how the Department will consult children and parents about the continued opening of schools;
the conducting of risk assessments for vulnerable children and teachers;
how covid-19 tests will be carried out and testing capacity for schools;
inconsistent guidance on social distancing in schools and mixed messages about it on school transport;
that meal provision will be as it was pre Covid-19;
how blended learning will be provided in a more consistent way in case of further waves of the virus, local outbreaks or individual cases where pupils need to self-isolate.
“The Department must guide schools to apply a consistent approach when isolating/separating symptomatic children in a ventilated room until they are collected by a parent and with all schools set to re-open next week, the Education Authority also needs to urgently clarify its plans to progress school transport and the required risk assessments.
“Finally, I remain concerned about how the Department will monitor the measures taken by schools when applying their revised ‘Behaviour Policies’ in relation to children ‘wilfully’ breaking Covid rules and ensure that these are reasonable and proportionate. It is not clear what constitutes a ‘flagrant abuse of the Covid-19 risks’ as stated in the guidance; I reiterate that disciplinary measures such as suspension and exclusion from school should only ever be used as a measure of last resort.”