Returning to school
When will children and young people return to school?
The start of term will be 24 August 2020 for Primary 7, Year 12 and Year 14 pupils and for vulnerable children across all year groups. Schools will be opening from the week commencing 17 August 2020 for preparation purposes. All other pupils will return at normal start dates, which may vary depending on school.
Will 31 August 2020 remain a public holiday for schools?
The Department expects 31 August 2020 to remain a public holiday for schools, however ultimately this is a local planning decision for schools.
Why are only certain groups returning to school on 24 August 2020?
Primary 7 is an important transitional year as children prepare to leave primary school and enter post-primary education. This is a major change in their educational journey. Year 12 and Year 14 are key examination years. Other jurisdictions (e.g. England, Scotland and Wales) are all bringing similar cohorts back earlier in August for similar reasons.
What about children of key workers?
Children of key workers will return to school at the same time as all other children of their age.
What is the scientific evidence basis of the DE guidance on school reopening?
The Department has worked closely with the Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health and the Public Health Agency in developing guidance for the return to school. Information on the scientific evidence in relation to Covid-19 can be found here.
What will the attendance patterns be when children return to school?
The strategic objective is to achieve maximum face-to-face teaching time for all pupils at the earliest opportunity.
Whilst the aim is to get as many pupils back to classroom teaching as quickly as possible in September 2020 with some schools able to accommodate all pupils, there will be circumstances where, due to small classrooms and other limitations, it may not be possible for all schools to move towards this at the same rate.
The Department has asked that there will be a minimum 40% face-to-face teaching time within primary schools and a minimum 50% face-to-face teaching time within post-primary schools with the balance provided through blended learning.
What is blended learning?
Some schools will need to take a blended approach to learning, whereby schools will combine classroom-based teaching and learning methods within school with a range of remote learning, in order to deliver the Northern Ireland curriculum.
There are many ways to blend face-to-face classroom time and out –of-class learning. There is no prescribed, one size fits all approach.
Will every school operate in the same way from the start of term?
On some aspects the Department expects consistency in schools and the guidelines set out these types of issues including start dates, minimum face-to-face teaching times and cleaning practices.
However, the Department has not prescribed a ‘one size fits all approach’ – this is not possible and would not be practical. School leaders are asked to consider the strategic guidance and put this into practice in their own schools to the best of their ability.
Every school is different, every classroom is different. Therefore, there will be variances in how schools approach the return to school. Some schools will be able to safely bring back all pupils immediately, whilst others will need to follow the guidance on minimum class time and implement blended learning.
What social distancing will be required in schools?
The decision of the Executive was that schools should use a planning assumption of 2m social distancing for adults/ adults and the pupils they are working with and 1m between pupils and, where possible, further mitigate that by use of protective bubbles. The Executive has decided that this applies to all year groups within a school setting including pupils in years 11-14.
What about children in pre-school education settings?
Children in pre-school education settings will not be expected to maintain social distancing, other risk mitigation measures will apply. Additional guidance can be found here.
What protective measures will be in place in schools?
Teachers and pupils will wash their hands as soon as they arrive at school and regularly through the day.
School cleaning will be carried out in accordance with Public Health Agency Guidance and routine cleaning will take place daily, with regular cleaning of door handles, desk tops etc. Schools should also remove unnecessary items from the classroom.
A normal summer clean will have been undertaken through existing Education Authority arrangements in advance of the new school term.
PPE will only be required in a very small number of cases, such as working with pupils who require intimate care needs and administering medication. PPE should not be worn by children.
How will teachers or pupils who are vulnerable be accommodated?
The Northern Ireland Schools Re-opening Guidance explains circumstances where staff or pupils should not attend education settings and also processes for the application of the Department of Health’s “Test, Trace and Protect” strategy.
What is a protective bubble?
Where the current social distancing guidance cannot reasonably be applied (for example with young children), schools should consider an additional risk mitigation approach organising children into small groups (‘protective bubbles’) with consistent membership appropriate to the size of the setting.
Keeping children and young people in ‘protective bubbles’ is a means of decreasing interactions between groups until further easing of measures is possible based on the public health situation. Where ‘protective bubble’ measures are used, social distancing between the adult staff working with such groups should also be maintained as much as possible.
What is the maximum size of a protective bubble?
The Department has not been prescriptive on the maximum size of a protective bubble. The size of bubbles will be dependent on the available classroom space and number of pupils.
Can protective bubbles be used for all age groups?
Protective bubbles are likely to be practical in primary schools and in post primary up to, and including, Year 10.
Bubbles are unlikely to be practical for Year 11 to Year 14 given the fact that pupils will be in mixed classes based on subject choice. The use of bubbles in post-primary settings for Year 8 – Year 10 would significantly reduce the “corridor traffic” in schools, with teachers moving classrooms rather than pupils.
How many pupils will be able to be in a classroom?
The available space and numbers of pupils in the classroom will vary considerably between schools. Not all classrooms are the same size, not all classes are the same, not all space available is the same and we must allow School Leaders, who know their children best, to plan accordingly for what will work best for the children in their school. The guidance advises that protective bubbles can be used alongside social distancing and schools should seek to use all available space within their school to maximise the number of pupils who can return to school.
Should schools be purchasing desks and chairs, or hiring local halls?
Schools should maximise available space within their own premises in the first instance and utilise existing resources.
Will additional funding be available for schools to cover costs associated with Restart?
The Department recognises the financial impact the current Covid-19 pandemic is having on society as a whole, including the education sector, and will continue, in conjunction with the Education Authority, to assess the financial impact of Covid-19 responses on grant aided schools. Once the detailed plans are established for the re-opening of schools, the resulting funding requirements will be further assessed.
How will school transport work?
The Department of Education, Education Authority, Department for Infrastructure and Translink are working closely to minimise the disruption to families. It is a hugely complex issue with many challenges that are being worked through as a matter of urgency.
Social distancing will require a reduction in home to school transport vehicle capacities. While the Education Authority is seeking to maximise the number of pupils that can be safely transported, it is unlikely that all pupils will be able to be provided with a place on a vehicle.
Detailed operational guidance is being prepared by the Education Authority and will be published shortly.
Why is guidance that has been issued not more prescriptive?
It is neither practical, nor indeed would it be helpful, to be overly prescriptive about the arrangements that every school must follow – every school setting has different physical characteristics and flexibility will be key to facilitate planning by schools that best meet local circumstances.
Why does the Northern Ireland Schools Re-opening Guidance not refer to other issues (curriculum, well-being, transport etc.)?
The Northern Ireland Schools Re-opening Guidance will be supplemented by a suite of further documentation, including guidance on issues such as curriculum, supporting and improving well-being and operational delivery of transport, catering, risk assessments and HR management.
What will happen if someone starts to display symptoms of Covid-19 onsite?
If anyone becomes unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature / fever or anosmia (a loss or a change in your normal sense of smell, which can also affect your sense of taste) in an educational setting they must be sent home and advised to follow the guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection.
A child awaiting collection will be moved, if possible, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door and with appropriate supervision. Ideally, a window should be opened for ventilation. If it is not possible to isolate the child, move them to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people.
If the child needs to go to the bathroom while waiting to be collected, they should use a separate bathroom if possible. The bathroom should be cleaned and disinfected before being used by anyone else.