Coronavirus: 'Meaningful' school reopening 'requires social distancing change'

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

MethodyImage source, AlbertBridge/Geograph
Image caption,
Methodist College in Belfast is one of Northern Ireland's largest schools with almost 1,800 pupils

The head of one of Northern Ireland's biggest schools has said it can only reopen "in a meaningful way" if social distancing guidelines change.

Methodist College principal Scott Naismith made the comments in an email to parents.

He said the social distance measure would need to reduce from the two metres UK guideline to the World Health Organisation suggestion of one metre.

Mr Naismith also said there would be no games or sports lessons.

He added that pupils would not attend every day.

Methodist College in Belfast is one of Northern Ireland's largest schools with almost 1,800 pupils.

Mr Naismith told parents that the school aimed to have a phased re-opening for pupils on 25 August.

Image caption,
Scott Naismith made the comments in an email to parents

But he said that could only happen "in a meaningful way" if the social distancing guidance changed.

He wrote that even if that change took place, class sizes would be reduced and pupils would not be able to attend every day.

He also indicated that pupils in years eight to 10 would temporarily take fewer subjects, there would be no games periods and that sporting activities, clubs and societies would be suspended, as would trips and visits.

Mr Naismith said that formal GCSE, AS and A-level exams next year would have to "take account of the disruption caused by lockdown and the phased return to normality".

"At this point in time we cannot say when that normality will be, but we want to return to it as soon as possible," he said.

Meanwhile, a County Down primary school principal has said that classes at his school would need to be split into thirds to maintain social distancing.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Education Minister Peter Weir has previously said that schools should begin to re-admit pupils on a phased basis from late August

Chris Currie, of Killinchy Primary, outlined the measures in a letter to the education minister.

Mr Currie said that the school had remained open for the children of key workers, but was limiting numbers to four pupils per class.

He pointed out, though, that the average class size at his 340-pupil school was 27 and that many of the school's classrooms were small.

He wrote this would make "initial proposals about morning/afternoon schooling or alternate weeks a non runner".

"What flexibility are we to be permitted on our school day?" he asked.

"There has been much talk of 'phased returns' and 'blended learning' but little clarity of what either of these phrases actually mean.

"A part-time school timetable will be a disaster for working parents and childcare arrangements."

Mr Currie also raised a number of other questions on how school meals and school transport could safely operate and said that guidance was needed as soon as possible.

However, he said that "the sooner we can get children back into school the better".