Schoolchildren in Northern Ireland are likely to remain out of the classroom until the second week of March at the earliest and could be facing the prospect of no school before Easter.
he Education Minister is due to deliver two papers to the NI Executive on Thursday, focusing on both the current school closures and the arrangements for the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary education.
And Peter Weir also said universities should be doing more to help students, many of whom have been paying rent for accommodation they haven’t been staying in as the universities moved to remote learning.
Health Minister Robin Swann said he is unwilling to speculate on what decision will be made, saying there are several options on the table, but Mr Weir has said it’s very unlikely in the short term that there will be a very swift return to face-to-face teaching,
The minister said that there is a hope for “some face-to-face teaching’ before Easter”, but following Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that schools in England will remain closed to the majority of pupils until March 8, the NI Executive is expected to reach a similar decision today.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph the minister said that it remains his aim to see a return to the classroom as soon as possible, but that it will be guided by health recommendations.
“At this stage I have to speak in generalities as there will be discussions at the Executive on Thursday, but it would be the case that we’re unlikely to see a swift return to face-to-face teaching, but that is something the Executive will have to decide on,” said Mr Weir.
“Schools will be closed for a minimum three-and-a-half weeks, but as always we have to look at the overall picture and assess the health concerns.
“It goes without saying that I want to see school children back in the classroom as soon as possible, but obviously taking the situation we are facing into consideration.
“I will present the options to the Executive. They will decide what’s best by looking at the whole situation in the country. A range of issues will be discussed further.
“I think the way Covid has worked out is that those who have been most adversely affected are the very old and the very young,”the Minister dais.
“I have a lot of sympathy for the position that young people have been put in.
“School have contingency plans. They were told to have them in place for the start of the academic year in September and there has been a lot of good work done by schools, teachers and parents in delivering remote learning. But none of that is as good as face-to-face learning.
“But we have to factor in giving schools at least two weeks notice of any potential return,” he said. “They need to know what’s coming ahead.
“The sooner we can get back to face-to-face learning, the better. But we’re all depending on the very fluctuation public health situation, and that comes first.”
He also said that universities should be going more to help students through the Covid pandemic.
“Universities come under the Department of the Economy and I know my colleague Diane Dodds is looking at what level of package of additional support can be provided to students from a financial point of view,” he said.
“In many ways students at universities are not getting the full experience, both socially and from a learning perspective. Universities need to step up to the mark to provide additional support.”
He also said he would like to see the University of Ulster following the example of Queen’s University in trying to support students.
“It would be perfectly reasonable for Ulster University to match what Queen’s has been doing to support students by allowing them to leave accommodation,” he said.
“A lot of what Queen’s has done has been perfectly reasonable. I want to see all universities being fair to all their students.”
The minister said he will be in a position to make a statement on examinations by next week.
“There will be an announcement,” he added.
“That will be largely based around the assessments teachers are making, moderated by the exam regulator to make sure it’s fair for everybody.
“It’s important that exams and qualifications are seen at that merit. We’ve got to make sure that when our students get their grades, they’re going to be comparable with everywhere else in the UK.
“It will not be question of what happened last year. There has been planning. There will be no algorithm.”
The NI Executive is expected to announce the decision on school closures this afternoon.