Over the weekend the Department of Health announced that another 5,238 people have tested positive for Covid, with 32 more deaths linked to the virus. That means 1,354 people have died in NI after testing positive for the virus so far.
Education Minister Peter Weir has faced mounting pressure to delay the return to school after the Christmas holidays due to worsening infection rates.
He announced last week that most pupils would not return to school in the first week of the month as planned, and instead return after a week of remote learning.
First Minister Arlene Foster said yesterday that remote learning for pupils in Northern Ireland should only be for a short period.
She expressed concern about the life chances of young people during the pandemic.
Primary pupils are to be taught remotely for the week from today to Friday as the spread of coronavirus surges.
Mrs Foster said: “I certainly don’t want to be in a position of keeping our young people at home.
“It is important that we get young people into schools again, but we have to have remote learning for a short period of time and I hope it is a short period of time.”
Teaching unions have called for remote education to be expanded to all in nursery, primary, secondary and special schools.
Mrs Foster told the BBC’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’ yesterday: “We will do all that we can to keep pupils in school.
“We do recognise that with this new mutant version of Covid-19 there are difficulties and it transmits among younger people, and we have to take that into consideration.”
One of the private companies which runs transfer tests for grammar school entrance has confirmed they will go ahead on January 9, 16 and 23 despite rising numbers of infections.
There have been calls for the tests to be cancelled.
For secondary school years 8 to 11, remote learning would continue throughout January.
Schools would open next week to accommodate vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Childcare settings, including those attached to schools, pre-school facilities, nurseries and special schools, would also open as usual next week.
But two national UK teaching unions have expressed grave concern about their members physically returning to schools too quickly.
The NASUWT teachers’ union yesterday called on Mr Weir to expand the provision of remote education to all pupils in nursery, primary, secondary and special schools.
Justin McCamphill, NASUWT national official for Northern Ireland, said: “We are in the middle of a Covid-19 surge and it is simply not tenable that special and nursery schools can return as normal next week or primary schools on January 11.
“Those teachers who are due to return next week deserve to be treated in the same way as all other school staff. The reality is that teachers in nursery and special schools are at high risk as social distancing of any sort is impossible.
“The NASUWT calls on the minister to make sure that his future communications are unambiguous.
“Clarification should not be provided in tweets just before midnight but should be communicated directly to schools before they are due to open next week.
“The NASUWT is aware of several primary schools which plan to open on Monday for pupils who are due to sit the transfer test. The minister needs to act now not in the middle of next week.”
The National Education Union (NEU) yesterday called on all primary and post-primary schools across the UK to extend remote learning to the first two weeks of January, except to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
NI regional secretary Mark Langhammer has confirmed that the union’s lobbying will include Northern Ireland.
“As a union, and on the basis of ‘the science’, we will support members who decline to return to unsafe working environments,” he said.
“We call for a two-week gap that will allow adequate time for schools to reshape risk assessments and practice for the future in light of changed circumstances. This must extend to early-years settings, too.
“The new strain of the virus changes things. It is complacent to ignore that children are very efficient carriers and spreaders of the virus, even if less affected themselves.”
Meanwhile, the president of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ian Henry, said last night that businesses across Northern Ireland must have certainty and support to prosper in 2021.
The chamber represents more than 1,000 businesses and 100,000 employees across Northern Ireland.
“As we enter 2021, businesses begin the year operating yet again under enhanced restrictions as a result of Covid-19,” he said. “Our members want to be able to open without interruption, for their customers and suppliers to be able to come and go freely, for trade to recover and for confidence to return but we must do this safely and within the guidelines. Without a doubt, the arrival of mass vaccination gives our business communities hope for a better year in 2021.
“Even with a Brexit deal, firms face an enormous amount of change in terms of how they trade. Responsibility rests squarely with the UK government to provide crystal-clear guidance that lets businesses plan into 2021 and beyond. The alternative is a new year that begins with even greater turbulence for supply chains, trade and markets – and higher costs for us all, leaving us with a disadvantage.”
As of last night there were 507 confirmed Covid-19 in-patients in NI hospitals, which were 96% full. Thirty-six of the patients were in ICUs. There were also 107 live outbreaks in NI care homes.
— to www.newsletter.co.uk