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All pupils will return to school full-time in Northern Ireland from the beginning of term, the Education Minister Peter Weir has announced.
He said the NI Executive had made the decision a “strategic prioritisation” at its meeting on Thursday.
The move means previous social distancing measures between pupils will be “relaxed”.
However, schools will still be required to keep most pupils in whole-class “bubbles” to limit mixing.
Schools in Northern Ireland were closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The executive passed a proposal from the minister at their meeting on Thursday. It includes a return to school for those who attend special schools.
Pupils going into years seven, 12 and 14 are to return to school on 24 August with all other pupils returning from 31 August.
In a letter to principals, Mr Weir said that previous advice requiring social distancing of 1m (just over 3ft) in classes would change.
“Strict social distancing requirements between all pupils will be relaxed from a specific distance to the best spacing that can be achieved but will remain in place between adults and, as far as it is practicable, between adults and pupils,” he said.
“Schools should continue to implement as much social distancing as is practical and where physical capacity and curriculum delivery permit.
“On the return to school, the overriding provision will be a full class return with all appropriate and practical protections put in place.”
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Guidance issued to schools in June had proposed 1m social distancing in classes
However, whole-class “bubbles” will be required for most pupils to limit mixing.
“I recognise that the approach will vary depending on age group,” the minister said.
“In pre-schools, primary and special schools, it is envisaged that in most cases a relatively straightforward approach can be adopted.
“A class will act as a single consistent group or bubble, with minimal prolonged interaction with other classes within the school.”
However, arrangements for post-primary pupils in years 11-14 will differ as pupils will need to move between classrooms depending on what subjects they are studying.
“For Years 11-14, it is recognised that a single consistent class group will not be possible, as pupils will be in mixed classes based on their choice of examination courses, but schools are encouraged to keep movements and interactions within these year groups to an absolute minimum,” Mr Weir said.
What about transport?
There will also be no requirement for pupils to follow guidance for social distancing on school transport.
“While parents and children should be encouraged to use other means of travelling to school for example, walking or cycling where it is safe and reasonable to do so, we recognise that for many children the home to school transport network may be the only available option,” Mr Weir said.
“There will therefore be no requirement for children to follow public transport guidance for social distancing between pupils on dedicated home to school transport vehicles.”
“However, where it is possible to socially distance, pupils should do so.”
Mr Weir also said that school meals would be provided from 31 August.
Peter Weir made the announcement after a meeting of the NI Executive on Thursday
The minister said that updated guidance on reopening would be issued to schools next week by the Department of Education (DE).
The need for “bubbles” will mean that most pupils should stay in their own class groups for the entire school day and not mix with pupils in other classes.
In many schools that will mean measures like:
- Staggered starts and ends to the school day so parents are not dropping all children off at once
- Staggered meal and break times so children are not mixing in the playground with a lot of others at one time
- School meals may have to be eaten in classrooms or even outside
- One-way systems in school corridors
- Children may not be able to bring things like books or stationery home and then back to school
- Items such as Lego and soft toys that are difficult to clean are likely to disappear from classes
Previous ‘Education Restart’ guidance issued by the Department in June had suggested that many pupils may only be able to return to school part-time in September.
Justin McCamphill from the teachers’ union NASUWT told BBC News NI that staff welcomed the return to work, however, he cautioned that it must be done in a “sustainable way”.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that guidance issued in June to schools provided a basis for a return.
“We should have been working on that guidance,” he said.
“If we scrap social distancing we are going to lead to an unsustainable return.
“There’s no point in getting everyone back if it leads to outbreaks and schools ultimately have to close again.”