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Statement from the Education Minister to the Ad Hoc Committee - Covid response

Education Minister Peter Weir today made a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly on the resumption of schools following the Christmas break and potential further actions to be taken within the education sector to limit the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.


Monday 21 December 2020

Peter Weir MLA Minister of Education

Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to the Assembly/ Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly on the resumption of schools following the Christmas break and potential further actions to be taken within the education sector to limit the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.

Throughout this pandemic, despite the best efforts of us all, including parents, teachers and other staff within education, children have undoubtedly suffered. While generally less clinically vulnerable to COVID than adults, through the necessary restrictions we have had to impose they have had to endure disruption to their schooling, loss of learning, social isolation, detrimental impact on their mental health and the prevention of the opportunity to lead a normal life. The consequences may be felt in their lives for years to come.

That is why myself, my Department and indeed the whole Executive has sought to prioritise the future of our young people, and in particular their education, in consideration of any measures or restrictions that were being considered. That is why the Executive agreed to a full return to school with mitigations, as soon as it was safe to do so, and why the Executive has supported a range of measures to support people both academically and in terms of mental health and wellbeing. That is why any decision around the education of our young people has not simply been taken in the context of the impact of COVID, but balanced against a range of wider considerations.

It is also why the Executive, when considering the range of very severe but necessary restrictions in the current circumstances, did not seek to close schools, but instead acknowledged that options needed to be developed that both protected the education and safety of our children while also combating the virus.

My Department, in co-operation with our colleagues in Health, was tasked with taking this forward. This work is building on existing strong working relationships that have been in place with the Health Minister and his officials throughout this pandemic and this co-operation will continue and deepen beyond the immediacy of current events. That work is continuing and indeed a further meeting was held this morning between officials. The provisions outlined today reflect that ongoing co- operation.

When examining any interventions than could be made in our schools, two things rapidly became very clear. Firstly, that there was a need to give swift clarity, particularly around the commencement of the new term

in 2021, to our Principals, to our teachers and educational staff, to our parents and most of all to our pupils. Secondly, that there was no potential intervention involving either temporary school closures or removal of face to face teaching for some or all of our students which was not damaging to them.

That is why such an intervention should only be taken with extreme reluctance and as a last resort. I am also very cognisant of the many young people who have prepared for exams in January, including over 25,000 taking GCSEs, and the need to enable them to sit these exams. This would of course be subject to the need for any exam location and logistics being compliant, without compromise, with public health guidance and regulations.

I must also have regard to the thousands of vulnerable children we have in Northern Ireland. I would ask everyone to reflect on the effect that whole scale school

closures could have on those children in Special Schools with particular learning difficulties and specialist needs. I must also consider the children already on the child protection register, those 'known to social services' whose COVID experience has been extremely traumatic. For these children school is a safe environment and a place where they find reassurance.

Interventions which reduce face-to-face teaching for students, to a greater or lesser degree, would inevitably result in even greater loss of learning than they have already suffered, damage their prospects in examinations, create further mental stress and anxiety, and for many vulnerable children remove the opportunity to attend school, which is often the safest and more secure place in their lives. Furthermore, such damage would not be evenly spread, but have the greatest impact on those most socially disadvantaged, widening further gaps within our system. That is why that I decided that schools needed to reopen for face to face teaching for all students at their usual time in January. I will not take action which damages the future prospects of our young people, nor will I put them at harm from a public health risk.

We also need to be aware that following an approach of whole scale school closures will also have a direct effect on the number of doctors, nurses and other NHS staff available in January, many of whom would be home now looking after their children. The only other option open to them would be placing their children into the care of grandparents who surely we all want to protect as more vulnerable adults?

However let me make this abundantly clear. The basis on which schools will return in January will not be on the basis of a return as normal. That would be an impossibility, and I agree with the Health Minister that matters cannot be “as normal” nor indeed given the unusual conditions that education has had to work in this year, it cannot be even a return to the “new normal”. I have made that very clear to all my Executive colleagues, no later than last night. We need a further step change in the actions that are taken.

In coming to this conclusion, I am mindful of the need for a number of additional steps and actions to be taken in education to limit the spread of the virus and protect our students, parents and education staff alike.

While there have already been a wide range of protective and measures put in in place, we must go further. This is not simply within the classroom, but must also address, where possible, a range of external factors associated with educational settings and young people, which in many instances pose a greater threat.

In developing a package of such interventions, which can be introduced swiftly, my Department will not only work with the Department of Health, but a wide range of other stakeholders such as Principals, Trade Union representatives, the Education Authority and particularly Youth Service, the Children’s Commissioner, Translink, and other Government Departments, amongst others.

This must quickly lead to a package of measures which can be implemented in early January.

While not exhaustive consideration has already begun in the following areas:

- Extension of the use of face coverings within post primary schools

- How compliance on face coverings and safety measures can be increased on school transport

- How we can dramatically improve behaviour drop off and collection of students around the school gates

- Building on the current pilot scheme in Limavady, working alongside our colleagues in Health, exploring how we can begin to further roll out test and trace capacity within schools

- How messaging can be improved to our young people to increase responsible behaviour and safety in connection with the pandemic

This list is not exhaustive, and I will embrace any practical suggestion which both further combats potential spread of the virus and protects our children’s education.

Other jurisdictions find themselves in a similar situation to ourselves, and have produced a range of variable actions.

Common to all however, is that they will all have some or all of their students resuming face to face education in the first week of January.

In taking strategic action to protect education and limit transmission, I think we need to look beyond single interventions which will have run their course in one week or two, and cease to have any impact from that point on. Rather we need a sustained package of interventions, which day by day, week on week, month on month, have an ongoing positive contribution to our battle with COVID.

Finally it is clear as regards the progress of the pandemic we are living in uncertain and fast moving times. This is not simply about what needs to be done for restart, but at appropriate interventions that will be needed at various times to both combat COVID and sustain education. Where we are today, may not be where we will be in four weeks times, and where we will be in four weeks’ time may not be where we are in eight weeks times.

Schools must also be given the time to prepare for any change. Therefore at this time and dependent upon the public health situation, I am proposing that remote learning would need to be brought in for post primaries for the non-exam year students with effect from 25th January, on a temporary basis until the end of half term.

We need to protect our most vulnerable students, and so irrespective of year group, the aim will be to keep Special Schools open throughout this period, and to provide provision within all schools for vulnerable children.

That is the best way to protect both society and the future of our young people.

I commend this statement to the House.

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