Schools: Social Distancing Guidelines

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 2:00 pm, 30th June 2020

11. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Education how a reduction in the social distancing guidelines, from 2 metres to 1 metre, would impact plans to reopen schools. (AQO 503/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With permission, I intend to answer question 3 and question 11 together.

My strategic objective is to achieve the maximum face-to-face teaching time for all pupils at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, the intention is to reach the point of five full days a week, but I will come to that later. The guidance sets out that there will be a minimum of 40% face-to-face teaching in primary schools and a minimum of 50% face-to-face teaching in post-primary schools, with the balance provided by remote learning. However, that is, if you like, a minimum. If schools can achieve more than that in the current circumstances, they should do so.

Whilst the aim is to get as many pupils as possible back to classroom teaching in September 2020, I am well aware that every school is different and every classroom is different. Consequently, in the responses that will have to be put in place, there will be a practical limit to what some schools can do.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for his clarity and for his desire to see schools fully reopen five days a week from September, as the current guidelines permit. The Minister might be aware that schools have been publishing their new timetables, which show great deviation among schools. That has caused much alarm among parents who are getting back to regularised working patterns. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm that, if the scientific evidence continues on the same pathway, he will bring to the Executive and the House a recommendation to remove one-metre social distancing and apply a classroom and social school bubble solution complemented by a hygiene protocol to ensure a full return to education in September?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Let me make it absolutely clear to the Member: I believe that we are on the right pathway and that we are on a trajectory for further changes to be made. My intention, if that continues, is to bring forward further proposals, before the end of the summer, to enable all schools to be open to every pupil five days a week. That is to the advantage of teachers, parents and schools, but, most of all, it is to the advantage of pupils. It is highly desirable that we reach that point.

The levels of protection that need to be put in place can, in those circumstances, be achieved by different methods. One of the advantages of the guidance that has been issued is that it puts in place a range of mitigation measures that can operate in almost any circumstances.

Let me also make it clear that the guidance is based on the current medical position. If, come September, we are still restricted by that medical position, the guidance that we have issued sets out the minimum that schools should do. There should be no ceiling to what they can do; indeed, I want to make sure that, if we are in that position, no school, in any shape or form, goes below the minimum. Schools should always strive to achieve the maximum. I hope that, in certain regards, that aspect of the advice given will be overtaken by events and that we can reach a point, before the start of the new school year, where what has to be put in place is different and we see every child in Northern Ireland return for five days a week.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Again, for the benefit of Hansard, I encourage all Members to address the Chair so that what they say can be clearly picked up.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Minister, at a time when we need leadership, for his positive leadership throughout the crisis.

The Minister rightly points out the massive detrimental impact on the education and, indeed, later life of any child who misses a day of school. Will the Minister outline the plans for social distancing in an early years setting? Will it apply? How will it apply?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Undoubtedly, very young children — this applies to early years but has an impact beyond that stage — cannot reasonably be expected to remain apart from each other during the day. It is not conducive to play-based learning and development. Taking into account the medical evidence, funded preschool education settings will be asked to organise children into small groups of protected bubbles with consistent membership appropriate to the size and characteristics of the setting. Children in those groups will not be required to socially distance. If you talk to any medical expert, they will say that that is simply not practical. We need to find other mitigation measures, and I think that bubbling will be the route. Social distancing can be applied between the bubbles and adults. Medical experts tell us that there is little danger of transference between children and that we need to mitigate between children and adults. On that basis, I envisage that preschool groups and other early years settings should be in a position to return to a full-time position come the beginning of the year.