Coronavirus: Arlene Foster calls for 'revisiting' schools date

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First Minister Arlene Foster wants the Stormont executive to discuss 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 Northern Ireland only pupils in primaries one to three will return to school on that date.

Mrs Foster said she hoped ministers could "revisit" that timetable.

"The education minister brought a paper forward last week - his preferred way forward was to have all children back at school on 8 March," she said.

"Unfortunately our health advisors didn't think that that was the right way forward.

"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."

She 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."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill spoke to UTV's View from Stormont programme after Mr Johnson's announcement on Monday night.

She said Northern Ireland's health officials had advised a slow and steady approach to schools.

Ms O'Neill said she believed the executive had taken a "very responsible approach" in relation to a phased return to school.

She said she recognised that many people had "Covid fatigue" and that she shared their frustration about the situation.

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.

'Very unsure, very uncertain'

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,'" she said.

"It leaves you feeling very unsure, very uncertain and not sure if you can trust what is being said."

Braniel Primary School principal Diane Dawson said children needed to get back to school but that the decision about how soon to allow that should be based on evidence from Northern Ireland's health experts.

"It can't be done because Boris Johnson makes an announcement five days after our executive have made a decision based on our science."

"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."

Keith Wysner, the principal of Whiteabbey Primary School, 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".

'Brighter days are coming'

Stormont ministers is 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."

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