By Jonathan McCambridge PA
The Stormont Assembly has been recalled amid growing concern over the number of pupils who are absent from school because they are self-isolating due to close contact with a positive Covid case.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan had submitted a petition to recall the Assembly, and having received the signature of 30 MLAs, Speaker Alex Maskey has confirmed it will meet on Thursday.
MLAs will call on the Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, to “develop clear and robust guidance” for school staff.
The principal of Larne High School, Stephen Reid, said on Monday that more than half of his pupils have been told to stay at home.
When children are off school as a close contact, they have to take a PCR test on day two of their absence. If it is negative and they have no symptoms they are allowed to return to school but have to take another PCR test on the eighth day after contact.
There have been reports of long queues at some Covid testing centres in Northern Ireland, with some struggling to accommodate the number of students requiring a test to return to school.
MLAs will debate a motion expressing “significant concern with increasing reports of pupil absences due to the Covid-19 situation in our schools”.
The motion says the situation “has been worsened by the failure of the Minister of Education to develop clear and robust guidance for our school staff”.
It “calls on the Minister of Education to work urgently with the Public Health Agency to issue guidance which is cognisant of the unique circumstances of the school setting in the context of Covid-19”.
First Minister Paul Givan said school principals are currently facing “huge pressure”.
He told the BBC: “They have the additional responsibility of managing a track and trace system. When I look at what is happening in Scotland there are dedicated centres that do that, it isn’t the requirement of principals.
“At the Executive yesterday, I was asking what is the Public Health Agency doing to provide simple information to be accessible at all times and what resources are being put in to those schools that are being overwhelmed so that principals, who have a huge job of work to do just to deliver an education system, are going to have that burden lifted from them.
“Schools ultimately have been asked to follow a self-isolation policy which every political party in the Executive supported.”
He added: “We need to be considering other options. Do we need to have PCR tests? Because there is huge demand now on getting those slots. Could we go back to a system of lateral flow testing? That is acceptable to access football matches and other facilities.
“Can that be something that is easily accessible and carried out at home by parents?
“In England and Wales there is no policy on track and trace and a self-isolation process – only if a child is unwell are they asked to stay at home. I think for the Executive on Thursday I’ll be wanting to have an update from the Department of Health.
“If the system can’t cope with the current policy, then I think the Executive needs to be considering all of the options because we need our children in school.”
Education Committee chairman Chris Lyttle said he has written to chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and the Public Health Agency to request that they attend Wednesday’s session of the Assembly Education Committee.
He said: “What we need here is action and not talk, and I recalled the Assembly Education Committee last week to engage with the Northern Ireland Teaching Council.
“As Education Committee chair, I have also written, as agreed by MLAs on the committee, to ask the CMO and PHA to attend tomorrow’s session. We need greater clarity on what the evidence is behind the system we have in place, and whether the system is operating as it is supposed to.”
The Public Health Agency said it is aware of “significant demand” on Covid-19 PCR testing at both fixed and mobile sites.
It said: “The agency is working with DHSC and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to look at all options for increasing availability of PCR testing for those who need it.
“Anyone seeking a PCR test is asked to be patient when trying to book a slot. Slots are added each day at 6pm for appointments the following day.
“PCR tests can also be ordered for home delivery through the same booking portal, which enables the test to be completed at home.”
Here's Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan
Pictured- Pat Sheehan
MLAs will debate the motion:
“That this Assembly expresses its significant concern with increasing reports of pupil absences due to the Covid-19 situation in our schools; recognises that this situation has been worsened by the failure of the Minister of Education (Michelle McIlveen) to develop clear and robust guidance for our school staff; notes the scale of the burden which this has placed on many of our principals and teachers; and calls on the Minister of Education to work urgently with the Public Health Agency to issue guidance which is cognisant of the unique circumstances of the school setting in the context of Covid-19.”