LISTEN: Proposals to address pupil absences linked to Covid-19 to be discussed this week

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Michelle McIlveen

By James Ward and Jonathan McCambridge, PA and Q Radio News

Proposals to tackle concerns over the number of pupils who are absent from school due to Covid-19 are to be discussed with stakeholders this week, the Education Minister has said.

It comes after the Stormont Assembly was recalled over the issue, which saw large numbers of school absences because pupils are self-isolating as a result of being a close contact with a positive Covid case.

Minister Michelle McIlveen said discussions are ongoing between her department and the Department of Health, with proposals currently being finalised.

She said: “Proposals are being finalised and will be discussed with relevant stakeholders this week.

“I recognise that the start of the new school year has been stressful for parents, children and school staff.

“The public health grounds for keeping and supporting children at school are very strong in terms of supporting their education and emotional wellbeing.”

She added: “The risk of Covid-19 infection in any setting cannot be entirely eradicated but it can be reduced.

“Schools have a range of mitigations in place to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in school.

“These include additional cleaning and hand hygiene, ventilation, the use of face coverings and regular asymptomatic testing.”

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen

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 Ms McIlveen to “develop clear and robust guidance” for school staff.

The Chief Medical Officer and a representative from the Public Health Agency have also been asked to appear before Stormont's Education Committee this morning to explain more about Covid-19 guidance in schools. 

Teachers have expressed concern that advice on testing and tracing has caused a high number of pupils to miss classes.

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.

Steven Wilson with his son Oliver Cook after he had a Covid test at the mobile testing facility at Larne Leisure Centre following the news that 400 pupils at the local high school missed classes because they had come into contact with someone with Covid-19.

Jacqui White, General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union says schools are overwhelmed with the rising cases among students. 

She says schools are finding reopening very different this time round. 

Chris Lyttle, Chair of Stormont's Education Committee says the PHA needs to provide clarity on the the current guidance in place, including rules surrounding pupil testing and self-isolation. 

“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,” said Mr Lyttle.

“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.

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.”

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