COVID-19 Guidance: Schools

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 6 December 2021.

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Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin 3:00, 6 December 2021

3. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Education for her assessment of the effectiveness of the current COVID-19 guidance in school settings in relation to close contacts. (AQO 2854/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

My Department’s guidance seeks to balance the need to ensure a safe environment with the need for children to access face-to-face teaching. I have therefore been led by public health advice on COVID mitigations in schools. On contact tracing in schools, we have moved on considerably from the start of the school year, when large numbers of pupils had to self-isolate as close contacts. That caused disruption in schools, with large numbers of children missing school and increased pressure on principals.

In his open letter on 9 September, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) explained that it was the right time for the Public Health Agency (PHA) to lead on contact tracing in schools and to use a more targeted approach to the identification of pupil close contacts. The more targeted approach taken by the PHA in identifying close contacts in school has resulted in improved attendance figures in schools. The PHA leading on contact tracing has reduced the burden on teachers and school leaders, who are no longer required to have a role in contact tracing.

I understand the concerns that some Members of the House and parents have expressed around the current approach to contact tracing. It was not an easy decision. However, I believe it was right that the Minister of Health and I accepted the professional advice of the Chief Medical Officer on the issue. As a result, it has significantly reduced the disruption for pupils, parents and schools. I recognise that the current high number of COVID cases, both in the community and in schools, has been very challenging for schools. At present, many schools are experiencing difficulties with teacher absenteeism and the availability of substitute teachers as a consequence of that.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answer. The Executive have made it clear that we need to refocus and redouble our efforts to bring COVID infections under control and avoid further restrictions. Obviously, our school communities have a role to play in that. However, many school leaders feel that they are not receiving adequate support. What further measures will the Minister take to ensure the safety of our pupils, their families and school staff?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I do not underestimate the pressure on schools and the families who have been affected. However, the Executive have been clear that we have to make sure that our young people maximise the number of days that they are in school. The long-term impacts on their education and their mental and emotional well-being are incredibly important, and we need to be mindful of that.

There are mitigations specified in my Department's guidance to schools. Obviously, a range of mitigations will have to be put in place at school level to reflect the individual circumstances of each school. The guidance allows school leaders to be flexible in how they manage COVID risks in their school, and that builds on the learning that has been gained over the course of the pandemic. Schools are encouraged to take a cautious and a risk-based approach to the operation of their school.

In August, the Executive decided that post-primary pupils should continue to wear face coverings, and, obviously, that is based on public health advice and continues to apply. There will also be asymptomatic testing programmes for post-primary, special schools and all school staff. The PHA vaccination programme, as you will be aware, continues to roll out to those aged 12 and over. Schools are also advised to maximise ventilation where possible. The Education Authority (EA) is supporting schools that identify issues with that, including the provision of CO2 monitors. Schools are also encouraged to maintain pupils in consistent groups were possible and to promote good hand and respiratory hygiene practices. Schools are encouraged to facilitate social distancing.

My Department has also issued guidance to schools about remote learning and has allowed them the flexibility to do that. Employing authorities are working closely with schools that are experiencing staffing difficulties to provide additional help and make sure that they have appropriate teaching cover where available. We are mindful of all that and are being responsive to schools when they require assistance.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

We will all agree with the Minister that it is of the highest priority to keep all of our young people in school, not just for their education but for their emotional health and well-being. In light of the rising number of infections, will the Minister give the House a flavour of the number of pupils who are in attendance at school at the moment?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. My officials monitor weekly and monthly pupil attendance levels, and that informs all relevant partners of absence trends. It is clear that attendance levels in the current academic year are not as high as we would like. At primary level, overall attendance for September to October was 93·2%. In the same period last year, it was 95·1%, so there is a reduction of 1·9. At post-primary level for the same period, overall attendance was 91% this year, compared with 93·1% for the same period last year, which is a 2·1% reduction. Whilst COVID obviously impacts attendance levels, it is not the only factor. On the basis of the weekly attendance figures for the week up to 22 November, COVID-19 absences accounted for 1·9%; pupils learning from home and therefore present accounted for 1·2%; and all other absences, including authorised and unauthorised absences, accounted for 8·8% of the total. From that data, we can conclude that, while COVID is a factor, it is not by any means the only factor at play.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Minister, there is a lot of rumour and speculation that you will have a circuit breaker coming up to Christmas. Can you confirm or deny that?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. It was mooted in August, before school started back, that there would be a circuit breaker at Halloween. That did not happen. There have been press queries and statements around that. There are no plans for mass closure or the use of a circuit breaker in schools at this point. The Executive's decision on COVID responses in schools has been and will continue to be guided by the medical and scientific evidence. You will be mindful that there was a statement made on behalf of the Executive last Thursday that reiterated that position in relation to schools.

I am aware of the harm caused to children and young people by school closures. It is in all of our interests that we continue to provide access to classroom-based teaching for all pupils. As a society, whilst we were conscious of watching out for the health service, we need to be mindful of watching out for our schools and ensuring that the behaviour that we have outside of the classroom is reflected in that and that we protect our schools by how we behave in playgrounds and other settings to ensure that schools do not become infected.