Coronavirus: September target for re-opening of NI schools

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Empty classroomImage source, PA Media
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Schools in the Republic of Ireland will remain closed until after the summer break

It is "extremely likely" there could be a phased return of schools in Northern Ireland in September, at the start of a new educational year, the education minister has said.

However, Peter Weir said he would be criteria led, not date led.

He added that any decision would need to reflect the executive's wider plans for recovery from the virus.

Speaking on BBC Radio Foyle, he said there were a number of "practical measures" that need to be addressed.

He cited securing PPE for staff, putting social distancing in place to allow school meals and ensuring measures are adhered to on school transport.

Mr Weir had previously said there was "no planned return" for schools and said it would all depend on scientific advice.

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Image caption,
Peter Weir says a number of factors had to be considered before schools would be reopened fully

On easing the lockdown, the minister said it was important any decision would provide a "clear roadmap for the future".

He denied suggestions that the executive would be guided solely by the British government's plans, adding that ministers were only getting "one bite of the cherry" to get their decisions right.

Analysis: Complex problems need to be solved quickly

By Robbie Meredith, BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Despite speculation that some children could return to school elsewhere in the UK in early June, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has been planning more towards re-opening in September.

But Peter Weir has said it's almost certain that pupils will only return to school on a phased, part-time basis when they can go back.

Other European countries who have already re-opened schools have taken that approach to ensure as much social distancing can be observed as possible.

But that may create headaches for some parents, some of whom may be back at work full-time while their children are only in school part-time.

It also has huge implications for - and creates big demands on - schools, as teachers will have to think about how they can combine classroom and online learning.

And of course we shouldn't forget pupils who will have to get used to a new school system.

Many of them will already be missing school, face-to-face contact with their friends and teachers, and also important parts of their education.

September may seem a long way away, but the clock is already ticking for solutions to be found to a host of complex problems.

Schools in Northern Ireland have been closed to all but a few pupils since late March due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Earlier in May, the British and Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU) wrote to Mr Weir setting out what conditions its members believe need to be met in Northern Ireland before schools reopen.

The group includes representatives from four of the five teaching unions in Northern Ireland - the UTU, INTO, NASUWT and NEU.