COVID-19: Contingency Plans

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 2:15 pm, 30th June 2020

10. Mr Chambers asked the Minister of Education to outline any contingency plans he has in place for a second wave of COVID-19 in autumn 2020. (AQO 502/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The COVID pandemic has presented significant challenges right across our society. This has been a particularly difficult time for children and young people, parents and carers and the education workforce.

The education workforce, alongside parents, has risen to the challenge and responded in an effective, innovative manner to minimise the impact of the disruption, while appreciating that distance learning is, and ultimately can be, no long-term substitute for the benefits of attending school.

We are extremely fortunate that the strengths of our education system have supported and facilitated the transition to distance and online learning. We have a very skilled workforce that has been committed to adapting to the current situation. We also have something that is the envy of other jurisdictions: a centralised education ICT infrastructure framework, with substantial capacity and a wide range of applications to enhance learning in a secure environment.

Plans for reopening schools are flexible and will be guided by the prevailing scientific evidence. The guidance provided has set out minimum standards for face-to-face teaching based on current planning assumptions, and I indicated earlier that it is my hope that schools will be able to deliver more than that and achieve the maximum as we move ahead. However, some of this will depend on school size.

The guidance given to schools can be a template for flexibility, not only for the circumstances of individual schools, but to enable schools to adapt their provision in the light of a potentially changing wider situation. All guidance prepared by my Department on the safe reopening of schools will be reviewed regularly and updated as appropriate.

I am also conscious that we must proactively plan for any further disruption that may occur. My Department and its partners are working to capture lessons learned from the current management of COVID-19 disruption to ensure that there is increased preparedness for the future. It is also important to capture any positive lessons learned — for example, the more extensive use of technology for teaching — and learn how those lessons can best be applied in the future for the benefit of teachers and learners, and, indeed, the wider economy. Work will increase in the coming weeks to ensure that the Department and the education system can respond quickly and effectively in the event of further disruption.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 2:30 pm, 30th June 2020

Minister, I have just come from a meeting of the Health Committee. Despite one member there considering or suggesting that we are actually through the pandemic, I think that we all realise that the virus has not gone away. If, God forbid, we should find ourselves back in the situation of March, would you consider a complete closure of schools again or would you look at a different approach?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Executive as a whole will be driven by the wider medical situation and by the evidence. I think that anything that leads to the closure of schools is very much the last-case scenario that we want. It is undoubtedly the case that, in the impact on learning — more, indeed, from the point of view that children are distanced from their peer learners — it will have a very detrimental effect on them as individuals, as well as impact on the economy, on parents and on schools.

I would look to take every step possible before reaching that point, and it would only be where it was necessary. We need to look at the wider implications for society, not simply for education but for mental health, and the impact that a complete shutdown has on the economy, not just from a financial point of view but from a broader health perspective. Any complete lockdown will simply increase poverty, and poverty, as well as the virus, will kill. We need to have, as much as possible, bespoke arrangements that can deal with the situation.

As I indicated, one of the advantages of the guidance is that, if there is a shift, either towards a complete recovery of schools or, in the worst-case scenario, a more limited provision, the advantage of the development of remote learning in particular has been that there is an opportunity to move along the spectrum if we absolutely need to. Let me reiterate that, while I completely take on board the Member's point that we are not through the pandemic, it is ultimately about trying to cope with it as best we can. The overriding objective and aim that I and, I think, the Executive have is to see schools fully open for all children, all the time, five days a week.