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18 Jan 2022

Education Minister must re-visit approach to managing Covid in schools, says Foyle MLA Delargy

Education Minister must re-visit approach to managing Covid in schools, says Foyle MLA Delargy

Pádraig Delargy: "We put these concerns directly to the Minister in the weeks before Christmas and called on her to produce a comprehensive plan"

Foyle Sinn Féin MLA, Pádraig Delargy, has called on education minister. Michelle McIlveen, to urgently revisit her approach to managing Covid in our schools.

Pupils are set to return to class in a few days time after the Christmas break with uncertainty still around on how both they and staff should adapt to the latest pandemic developments – namely the Omicron variant of the Covid virus.

Mr Delargy said that school principals needed guidance from the top so that pupils and staff can receive reassurance that classes can be taught in safe conditions.

He said: “The new school term is almost upon us and the Education Minister has failed to produce a plan to make our classrooms safer.

“Principals have been open and honest in recent weeks as they describe the deterioration of the situation in many of our schools.

“A lack of appropriate guidance, a lack of adequate safety mitigations, a soft touch contact tracing policy, and a lack of available substitute teachers have put many of our schools in difficult positions with many having to resort to partial closures.

“The Omicron variant may also present new challenges, so I am urging the Minister to revisit her approach to Covid in schools.

“We put these concerns directly to the Minister in the weeks before Christmas and called on her to produce a comprehensive plan which puts HEPA (high efficiency particulate absorber) filters in all classrooms, which sets out a contact tracing policy teachers and families can have confidence in and to speed up the redeployment of qualified teachers from non-pupil facing positions back into the classroom.

“The Minister keeps telling us she wants to keep schools open. We agree, but it would appear she has squandered the opportunity over the Christmas break to develop a plan.

"We will continue to make the case to the Minister for a new approach to Covid in our schools.”

The Secondary Students’ Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI) have also called on the Department to provide more measures to help protect school pupils from Covid.

SSUNI President, Morgan Shuttleworth, said: “The SSUNI believes that, due to the drastic increase in infections, this should be reflected in the assistance being given by the Department.

“Education as a whole is being dragged under due to the staff shortages created by contact tracing, and so in order to keep schools open we must do all that we can to keep both staff and students safe.

“The Union has repeatedly called on the Department to provide more measures, specifically HEPA filters and air purifiers, but there has not been any such movement.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education (DE) responded by saying that “a range of mitigations” have been recommended to risk the transmission of Covid within schools across the North.

The said: “Throughout the pandemic the Department has worked closely with key stakeholders as well as the Department of Health and Public Health Agency as we manage our response and continue to do so.

“We continue to follow advice in relation to all public health issues including contact tracing however no changes have been recommended in respect of the approach to contact tracing or changes to the DE Covid guidance.

“Rates of Covid infection in the community in Northern Ireland are currently extremely high. Schools are part of our community so it is inevitable that there will be cases among staff and students in our schools.

“While we cannot eradicate Covid altogether, a range of mitigations are recommended to reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible in the school environment.

“These measures include regular LFD testing, good hand/respiratory hygiene, maximising ventilation, face coverings for post-primary pupils and staff and consistent groups wherever possible.

“All staff and those aged 12 and over have also had access to the vaccination programme. We have a shared objective to support our schools so they are able to provide for our children as we all know that the best place for our children and young people is in school.

“No one mitigation on its own will prevent the spread of the virus, but used together each mitigation provides works to reduce transmission.

“Our schools, like those across the rest of the UK and Ireland, are facing staffing shortages due to the pandemic. There is a limited supply of qualified teachers.

“We have made a formal call for retired teachers to provide support and we have also looked to provide more flexibility for schools in how they deploy substitute teachers. If further financial resources are needed by schools we will make bids to meet these costs.

“The EA secured more than 11,500 C02 monitors and approximately 95 per cent of schools in NI have now been provided with monitors, with a further 5000 monitors expected imminently. The additional monitors will be delivered to the remaining schools as a priority and also to those schools that have requested additional monitors.

“Good ventilation, along with other measures can help mitigate the risk of transmission. Natural ventilation, such as opening windows can be effective at reducing the risk from virus in the air.

“School leaders who are concerned about ventilation in a room should contact the EA maintenance helpline for advice and support on the best approach for their individual circumstances.

“In some cases where an area of poor ventilation has been identified, it may be appropriate to consider the use of an air cleaning unit as an additional mitigation whilst further remedial work is undertaken to improve ventilation.

“The pandemic requires a collective response to support the safe operation of our schools – staff, parents, and pupils all have a key role to play carrying out regular testing and making sure making sure that anyone with symptoms follows Covid-19 advice and information which is available at NIDirect.gov.uk.”

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