First Minister Arlene Foster wants the Stormont executive to “revisit” its discussion about the reopening date for schools in Northern Ireland.
She was speaking after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his lockdown exit plan, with 8 March set for the return all schoolchildren in England.
In NI, only children in preschool. nursery and primaries one to three will return to school on that date.
Some principals have questioned Mrs Foster’s call to reconsider that date.
Mrs Foster said Education Minister Peter Weir’s preference was for all children to return to back at school on 8 March.
“Unfortunately our health advisors didn’t think that that was the right way forward,” she said.
“I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward but I hope that we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own experience the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom.”
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader added: “I’m not a teacher – teachers are professionally trained and therefore it is vital that we get our young people back into schools as soon as possible.”
However Sinn Féin’s education spokesperson said “nothing has changed since last Thursday”.
“The [chief medical officer] told us last week that the reopening of schools completely would lead to a rise in the R number by between 0.3 and 0.7,” Pat Sheehan told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.”If the R rate at the minute is sitting around 0.75, even if we only hit that lowest number, it brings us back above one and we’re back in the exact same situation again.”It’s disappointing that Arlene wants to go and make policy on the hoof in interviews on the TV last night.”You would think by now that the DUP would have learned not to hitch their wagon to Boris.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, speaking before the prime minister’s announcement on Monday, said Northern Ireland’s health officials had advised a slow and steady approach to schools.
She believed the executive had taken a “very responsible approach” in relation to a phased return to school.
But she added “we’re not out of the woods yet” and insisted it was important to be honest with the public that it will be a “slow and steady approach” to lifting lockdown.
Speaking on Tuesday, Maeve O’Lynn, whose son is a primary six pupil, said the uncertainty was “creating a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress”.
“We were only being told last week that following the scientific advice… it was only safe to have the youngest children in,” she said.
“Then suddenly the children in England are going back in and our first minister is saying to us late yesterday: ‘Actually, we need to look at this again.’
“It leaves you feeling very unsure, very uncertain and not sure if you can trust what is being said.”
Diane Dawson, the principal of Braniel Primary School in Belfast, said children had to get back to school but the decision about how soon to allow that should be based on evidence from Northern Ireland’s health officials.
“It can’t be done because Boris Johnson makes an announcement five days after our executive have made a decision based on our science,” she said.
“It is not good enough to make a decision… and not consult with us to respond fully and communicate properly to our parents, and now to say it’s going to be revisited – on the basis of what?
“Someone needs to start talking to school leaders.”
Whiteabbey Primary School principal Keith Wysner said there needed to be “sensible caution and we need to progress in a sustainable way”.
Maire Thompson, the principal of Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast, said that having pupils return to classrooms in phases was a “much better approach to this”.
Stormont ministers are due to review the existing lockdown measures next Monday and discuss the next steps in their response to the pandemic.
The plan for schools in Northern Ireland is for students doing courses for GCSEs, AS, A-levels (in years 12 to 14) and other vocational qualifications like BTec will return to face-to-face teaching from 22 March.
But pupils in years four to seven in primary school and years eight to 11 in post-primary schools will not be back in classrooms until after the Easter break at the earliest.
Mrs Foster said Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed the Covid-19 vaccination programme was making good progress and offered cause for hope.
“He confirmed to me that over 32% of our adult population have now been vaccinated – nearly 500,000 vaccines have been deployed here in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“I very much hope that we can give optimism next Monday.
“The brighter days are coming – people do feel a sense of optimism not least because of our vaccination programme.”