The return of seven year groups of school children in Northern Ireland has been hailed as a “good day for our young people and their families” by the Stormont Education Minister.
Primary pupils in P4 to P7 and secondary school children in year groups 12 to 14 resumed face-to-face education on Monday morning after three months of home learning during the coronavirus lockdown.
Primary pupils in years P1 to P3, nursery and pre-school children are already back, having returned on March 8.
The final cohort, secondary pupils in years eight to 11, is due to go back to classes on April 12 after the Easter holidays.
That move is dependent on a Stormont review of the public health data at the time.
The winter surge of Covid-19 cases forced the closure of schools in January.
Only vulnerable children and those of key workers had been able to attend classes prior to this month.
Visiting three schools on Monday, Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir said he had been struck by the joy among the children.
“I think it’s a very good day for our young people, a good day for families, not just for their educational future but for their mental health and well being, there is nothing can beat being directly back in school itself,” he said at Wallace High School in Lisburn, Co Antrim.
“For a lot of students, it has now been 13 weeks since they were in school with their friends and that has an impact on them not just educationally but in terms of their wellbeing.
“This is a significant milestone in the return to a normalised educational environment.”
Mr Weir said, while the Covid-19 testing in schools will allow for earlier detection of cases, it is important for everyone to play their role by abiding by the regulations.
“I know this can be very frustrating, but particularly for parents whenever they are doing the drop off and pick up that they observe social distancing and that they wear masks,” he said.
“Every one of us has a role to play not just in keeping schools open but ensuring we can move to the maximum extent of opening up society.”
Mr Weir said his focus was now on developing plans to help children catch up on what they had missed out on during lockdown.
He said he would be bringing proposals to the Executive that included a wide range of summer school provision.
Deborah O’Hare, principal of Wallace High School said she was absolutely delighted to see three year groups back in school.
“Schools are made for young people, we’re here for them, staff have missed them,” she said.
“We have had online learning which was very successful but at the same time there is no replacement for the social aspects of learning and the face-to-face contact and pastoral care we can offer when young people are here on site.”
Diane Dawson, principal of Braniel Primary School in east Belfast, said she was elated to see all the children back for a day of fun with bouncy castles and an ice cream van.
“I wanted the children to come back today and reconnect with their friends,” she said.
“I know that many of them are anxious about their school work, about what they have done or not done, I didn’t want them coming in and being sat down in a classroom and thinking they were going to be assessed because we are not doing that to them.
“I just wanted to children to be able to come back and relax, and for the parents as well.”
Ms Dawson also urged against any potential return to home-learning in future.
“They can’t go out again, I really hope that our children are back for good now,” she said.
“It’s unthinkable, another lockdown for a school situation, it just can’t happen.”
As part of plans to return to classroom learning, Covid-19 lateral flow testing is being introduced for teachers and some older pupils.
The tests will be offered to staff in nurseries, pre-schools, primary schools and secondary schools and to pupils in year groups 12-14.
The tests are being introduced in a phased basis.
They are being trialled and demonstrated in secondary schools this week ahead of a full rollout to other educational settings after the Easter holidays from April 12.
From that date there will be an expectation that year group 12-14 pupils will take the tests at home.
The timetable for returning to school was agreed by Stormont ministers as part of the initial steps of their lockdown exit strategy.
Several restrictions on wider society are due to lift next month, including:
From April 1
– Up to six people from no more than two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.
– Ten people, from no more than two households, are able to participate in outdoor sporting activities. Golf courses to reopen (clubhouses to remain closed).
– Click-and-collect purchases allowed from garden centres and plant nurseries.
From April 12
– Up to 10 people from no more than two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.
– Click and collect at all non-essential retail outlets.
– “Stay-at-home” requirement lifts. Will be replaced by “stay local” message.
– Outdoor sports training to resume for sports clubs affiliated with recognised governing bodies with no more than 15 participants in one training group. Indoor club facilities, apart from toilets, to remain closed.
The Executive has also amended regulations around elite sports to enable two World Cup qualification matches scheduled for March 25 and 31 to take place as well as a friendly match between Northern Ireland and the US on March 28.
No spectators will be permitted at any sporting event.
The April 12 easements are subject to final ratification by the Executive in the week before they come into effect, likely on April 8.
The death of one further patient who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 was reported on Sunday by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health.
Another 125 cases of the virus were also confirmed.