Covid-19: More than 50 schools urge Peter Weir to rethink early closing

Covid-19: More than 50 schools urge Peter Weir to rethink early closing

More than 50 schools in Belfast have written a joint letter to the education minister urging him to “reconsider your stance on early school closure”.

The letter comes from nursery, primary and post-primary schools in the West Belfast Area Learning Community (ALC).

It contains a strongly-worded warning that easing many restrictions on 11 December will have a knock-on effect for schools.

The schools also said that a plan is needed for January.

They said “there may be a tsunami of cases arriving in to each of our schools” in the new year.

Education Minister Peter Weir has repeatedly stated that schools will not close early for the Christmas break.

He has also said that health experts have not recommended closing schools early.

However some principals have said pupils will not be marked absent if parents want them to do schoolwork at home in the final week of term.

Many schools are due to end term on Friday 18 December, but some continue until 22 December.

The joint letter from west Belfast schools told Mr Weir there had been a “lack of clarity from the Department of Education, conflicting guidance from the department and Public Health Agency, and a real lack of insight from you or your department concerning the enormous volume of work which we face on a daily basis”.

It said that the easing of many restrictions in other areas would have an impact on schools.

“Given that the executive has agreed to ‘relax’ restrictions to enable people to experience a more normal Christmas, we are fearful that this allows for increased mixing of bubbles and larger numbers of households and people being able to gather leading to increased infection rates,” it said.

“These increased risks on people’s health, added pressure on NHS and likelihood of increasing mortality as a result of Covid-19 must have been judged to be tolerable in order to ensure that people are allowed to see loved ones at Christmas.

“However, failure to close schools at a time when hospitality and close-contact services resume, will undoubtedly impact on the Christmas experience of those school staff who are identified by contact tracing over the coming weeks.

“It might appear to some that whilst increasing deaths and illness rates are tolerable, safeguarding the Christmas of front-line staff such as healthcare workers and schools are not important to the executive or your department.”

The letter also said that school staff had been providing constant support to pupils and parents affected by lockdown.

“Our school populations continue to grow and so, too, does the level of need and vulnerability,” the letter said.

“We are all too aware of the ‘breaking point’ that some of our pupils and families have reached over the possibility of spending Christmas away from loved ones.

“This period of restrictions has been very difficult on those pupils with special educational needs, especially those suffering with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, as their ability to see loved ones from their extended family has been impacted and Christmas may be the only opportunity in the coming months.”

It concludes by pleading with Mr Weir to allow school staff to teach and pupils to learn from home “for a period of just five or six days” before the planned end of term.

“As school leaders we also have a duty of care to our staff, pupils and the wider school community,” it said.

“The biggest cause of stress and anxiety we see at the present time is the uncertainty people feel about their ability to see extended family over the Christmas break.

“In what has been an exceptional year for us all, can I ask that you reconsider your stance on early school closure, or at least trust in the professional judgement of school leaders to provide effective home learning opportunities which will enable the exceptionally hard working educational workforce to have the Christmas break which they have earned throughout this pandemic.

“This action, alone, has the power to do much to boost the morale and well-being of every member of staff in schools.”

The government in Wales has said all post-primary schools will move to online teaching until Christmas from Monday 14 December.

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