Schools: COVID-19 Mitigations

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:00 pm, 21st September 2021

2. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Education how she will protect the safety of the school population in order to maximise in-school learning. (AQO 2438/17-22)

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

3. Ms Hunter asked the Minister of Education to outline her plans to address concerns regarding COVID-19 track and trace in schools. (AQO 2439/17-22)

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

7. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Education to outline her plans to mitigate the impact of sustained disruption as a result of COVID-19 on the delivery of education this year. (AQO 2443/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission I will answer questions 2, 3 and 7 together as they all relate to COVID-19, and I respectfully ask for an additional minute.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

No problem. Go ahead.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Thank you.

We have all seen how disruptive it is for pupils to be prevented from accessing classroom-based learning. The Executive have aimed in their decisions to balance the low risks to pupils' health with the harm to children caused by disruption to their education. A range of mitigating measures remain in place to keep pupils safe, including regular asymptomatic testing, the offer of a vaccine to staff and now to pupils over 12, the use of face coverings by post-primary pupils in schools and on transport and encouraging ventilation of classrooms wherever possible.

At the start of the term, too many pupils were asked to self-isolate and school resources were stretched in supporting contact tracing. The Health Minister and I therefore agreed that the Public Health Agency would undertake all contact tracing, with schools no longer having significant involvement. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) endorsed that approach in his letter of last week that explained why schools are safe. He stated that the vast majority of pupil close contacts did not go on to develop COVID and that teachers are not at an increased risk of hospitalisation or death in comparison with comparable adults.

The PHA has narrowed its definition of a school close contact because of the evidence that children are at a low risk of severe disease and because all staff and some pupils will have been offered a vaccine.

While, in some cases, the PHA may identify no close contacts in a school, I support the more targeted approach taken by its experienced contact tracing staff, following expert public health advice. That reflects the evidence referenced by the CMO and will help to ensure that pupils are not asked to self-isolate unnecessarily.

On minimising the impact of COVID, among other initiatives, I recently launched the Engage II programme. The programme will invest over £16 million to help to limit any long-term impact on educational standards by providing support for pupils' learning and engagement. It will also support pupils' social, emotional and mental health and well-being. Should there be further unavoidable COVID disruptions, which I hope will not be necessary, there are plans in place in areas such as examinations and post-primary transfer that build upon the work done in those areas during the last academic year.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:15 pm, 21st September 2021

I am grateful for the answer. Does the Minister accept that the new approach to pupil testing, tracing and isolating has been poorly explained and implemented? Can she confirm that plans are being put in place to improve communications from the Department, the Education Authority and the PHA in that regard?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I know that there will be some uncertainty, given where we were in the first week with schools being very much hands-on in contact tracing. In response to that, the Department put some measures in place towards the end of that week. Things escalated over that weekend, and, as a consequence, I engaged directly with the Department of Health, the Minister and the Chief Medical Officer in order to try to find a solution, because I was aware that many school leaders were under significant pressure, and that was on top of starting a brand-new school year and the challenges that naturally come with that.

As regards the changeover and the intervention of the PHA nearly two weeks ago, that has led to an easing of the burden, to a certain degree, on school leaders, although it has not come without its difficulties, because they have had to explain to parents the very different approach that the PHA is now taking to close contacts. I was aware of that, and I was concerned about it. The Member may be aware that this afternoon sees the start of a number of webinars to discuss that directly with teachers and school leaders. The CMO will be present at those webinars. I hope that communication will be much clearer as a consequence of that.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Can she detail what advice she has given to schools on the matter of ventilation as we approach the winter months?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question on the issue of ventilation, which is very topical. We have been trying to roll out education on that in the schools. It is not just a matter of opening windows; there are other aspects to it as well.

I am aware of the approach being adopted in other jurisdictions with the wider roll-out of carbon dioxide monitors in schools. My officials have worked closely with professional colleagues in the Education Authority, and the current advice being provided to schools is based on that work. While the updated advice continues to encourage schools to do what they can to improve ventilation locally by opening windows and doors where possible, if there are any specific concerns about ventilation, the school should call the EA maintenance officer. They will then assess the situation and agree an action with the school aimed at undertaking work to fix, where possible, issues identified. It is considered that that approach permits an assessment of the issue on a case-by-case basis, with remedial action being planned and implemented as necessary. That is being taken forward by qualified professionals.

For the Member's information, of the 1,600 calls to the EA maintenance help desk since 1 March last year, to date, only 33 have related to ventilation requirements, and those have, I understand, been addressed. My officials will obviously keep working very closely with professional colleagues in the EA to keep that under review. Outside of that, you will also know that schools are being very creative in utilising outdoor space in a way that they have not been able to do and have not done before. Many have used the money from the well-being fund to repurpose areas. Last week, I launched an £800,000 fund for special schools, which very much focuses on outdoor play.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

So, schools are being very creative.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

On 2 September, trade union representatives gave evidence to the Committee for Education and told us that they were unaware of any contingency plans to deal with serious disruption as a result of COVID in schools. Since then, the situation has deteriorated. If schools are to remain open, it is imperative that plans are in place to deal with issues such as continuity of learning, exams, support for children with special educational needs and so on.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Can you come to a question, Member?

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Can the Minister tell us when we can expect to see those plans?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I take a little bit of issue with the inference that school leaders have not been supported and that there are not any plans in place if the situation deteriorates. My priority is very much to ensure that our young people remain in school, not only for educational purposes but for their mental health and their well-being. As the Member knows, school is a refuge for some of those pupils. It is imperative that we recognise that this is an issue. I believe that disruption should be somewhat reduced for many by the role that the PHA is now playing, particularly in relation to contact tracing.

Experience over the past 18 months has meant that blended learning and remote learning practices are now well established. Teachers are now skilled in this in a way that they were not at the start of the pandemic. The Member will also be aware of the announcement made by my predecessor in May on public examinations and the reduced content of those. Contingency plans are being developed by CCEA for awarding qualifications if required. These arrangements will be based largely on the professional judgement process that was deployed last year and will obviously be refined to take account of lessons learned through that process. As we have heard, the transfer test will be very much a matter for the providers and the member schools, taking cognisance of public health advice at the time.

I have to be a realist, and I am. I recognise that the pandemic is very much a fluid situation, and contingency planning is taking place. However, I also want to be an optimist. I hope that these plans will not be used and that, if they are, they will be used only as a last resort. I want to give confidence to the Member that contingency planning is taking place.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Minister, we are all concerned about the safety of pupils, teachers and, indeed, the general staff in schools. Can you be specific about the impact that contact tracing has had on pupil attendance since the start of this term?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Attendance data for the week commencing 13 September showed 1% of the total pupil sessions being recorded as pupils self-isolating having been identified as a close contact of a positive case. This is a significant reduction from the corresponding figure of 2·7% of sessions in the week commencing 6 September. The more targeted approach to contact tracing that is now being used by the Public Health Agency has enabled a significant reduction in the number of school days being missed through self-isolation as a close contact. The Chief Medical Officer explained in his open letter that only a very small proportion of close contacts go on to test positive and, therefore, it was the correct approach to move to more closely targeted close contacts. As we know, too many children have been identified as close contacts already this year. It is right that we have taken the action that we have done to allow children to stay in school.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

What is the Education Minister's reaction to reports that the PHA is failing to contact trace even the redefined most intimate close contacts? Indeed, how many pupils have tested positive for COVID between day two and day eight PCR testing?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. If what he has said is the case, it concerns me. I will raise the issue with the PHA, as I will the other issues that have been raised with me regarding the PHA. I am happy to write to the Member with the information that he has asked for on those who have tested positive.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

After consultation with fellow teachers, families and pupils, I am deeply concerned that the PHA evidently does not have the capability to take on contact tracing. What steps has the Minister taken to rectify that? When will she provide our school communities with a solution?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I have been given assurances by Minister Swann and the Chief Medical Officer that the PHA has the capacity to carry out the role that it has undertaken. The Chief Medical Officer will be attending tomorrow's Committee meeting. My officials keep in regular contact with the Health Department on this issue, and I am more than happy to continue to press them on capacity.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

It has been suggested that the evidence gathered on isolation during the 2020-21 academic year and the beginning of this year did not capture any significant data on the delta variant, yet that information and evidence has been used as a basis for the new definition of close contact. What message does the Minister send to the staff and parents who have expressed concerns to me that, while in the school environment, they feel more exposed than the general public to the possibility of catching COVID-19?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Obviously, the Member is reiterating genuine concerns that have been articulated to her, and to me, by those who are feeling vulnerable. The situation has changed slightly with regard to the uptake in vaccination. I would like to think that those who have been able to avail themselves of it will do so. With regard to the data, the conversations that we have had with the Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer suggest that schools are a safe place to be and that the PHA is working on the close contacts. That is very much being led by the PHA and its expertise and data. I will reiterate what has been said here to the Chief Medical Officer when I see him. That will be part of a conversation that we have tomorrow at the Committee.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The next two Members are not in their seats. I call Stephen Dunne.