Some schools reopen for children of key workers
by Diarmúid Pepper
Primary schools in this region will not open today (Monday) for children of key workers, despite a government directive asking them to do so, with principals citing a “lack of clarity” on the issue.
However, St. Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen and St. Paul’s HS, Bessbrook have announced they will be open to accept children of key workers, although parents are required to contact the school in advance and pupils are not permitted to turn up to school without prior arrangement.
All schools in the north have shut their doors following an announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday evening who said that “schools will remain closed, for the vast majority of pupils, until further notice”.
However, he added that in order to “keep the NHS going, we need critical workers with children to keep doing their jobs”.
As a result, Mr Johnson said that schools “need to make provision for the children of these key workers who would otherwise be forced to stay home”.
The UK’s Education Minister, Gavin Williams, later clarified that ‘key workers’ include public safety and emergency workers, NHS staff, education and childcare staff, and transport and delivery workers.
Children of workers in these professions, and children with education and health care plans, are still to attend school. There was confusion as to whether both parents or guardians, where applicable, had to be key workers but only one parent or guardian need be a key worker for a pupil to be eligible to attend school.
In a letter on Thursday evening, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister Peter Weir said that schools will “facilitate provision for vulnerable children and those of key workers, and be available to carry out other duties that principals may require of them”.
The Education Minister added: “The Executive is committed to ensuring continuity of provision for children and young people who may be vulnerable or who currently avail of free school meals through our schools. Unless there are reasons to the contrary, staff should be available in education settings on Monday.”
In a FAQ published by the Northern Ireland Department of Education, schools were asked to “work together; this may include the attendance of staff at a setting other than their own, or the attendance of children at a setting other than their normal setting”.
This guidance applies to single-sex schools, and such schools are expected to take in children of both genders if needed.
However, it is not yet known how many schools in the north will open on Monday for children of these ‘key workers’ and a letter viewed by The Examiner states that primary schools in this region will not open.
The letter, dated Friday 20th March and penned by the Newry/South Down/South Armagh Primary Principals Group, said there was a “lack of clarity” around the issue.
It said: “Without a detailed operational plan from the Department of Education (by close of business today) and without appropriate protective measures in place we feel we cannot safely provide childcare for the children of key workers on Monday.
“We need adequate time to risk assess in our schools to ensure we can comply with Public Health Authority guidance relating to Personal Protective Equipment and social distancing. We will use this time to work with our colleagues in DE/EA/CCMS/NICIE/CnaG to meet the challenges being faced.”
The letter concluded: “At present medical professionals advise that the safest place for your children is at home. We will keep you fully informed of further developments.”
A local parent who is a ‘key worker’, and who sends her children to a Newry High School, was asked if she has received any information from the school as regards provisions for her children.
She said she had not received any information and that she would not be sending her children to school regardless of whether it is open or not.
However, a letter sent to parents of St Joseph’s High School, Crossmaglen pupils, confirmed that the school would be open for children of key workers up to Year 10. A similar letter was sent to parents of St Paul’s.
School buses will not be available and children have to make their own way to school. Pupils are also asked to wear their uniform and to bring their school bag and school books but no classes will be taking place, and teachers will be present in a day care role only. Children are also advised to bring in a packed lunch, as there is uncertainty as to whether there will be school meals.
Parents were given until 5pm on Sunday to confirm if their child would be present, so that the school could put in place health and safety precautions. However, if a parent has missed this deadline they can phone the school on Monday and arrangements can be made.
Meanwhile, parents of St Paul’s pupils were asked to complete an online registration form by 8pm Sunday if they wished to attend school on Monday. St Paul’s has also requested that children of ‘key workers’ remain at home if possible.
The directive to close schools came after the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales decided to close their schools amid the coronavirus crisis.
Many schools in the north had already closed prior to this announcement, a decision largely driven by the Irish government’s decision to close its schools, colleges and childcare facilities almost a week earlier.
There is also a degree of confusion over what will happen as regards pupils who were set to sit their GCSE and A-Level exams.
On Wednesday evening, Mr Johnson confirmed that exams would not take place in May and June. However, he said: “We will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic year.”
Education Minister Peter Weir outlined what this would mean for pupils in the north. In his letter, he wrote: “With full consideration of what is in the best interests of our young people, we will not proceed with GCSEs, AS and A levels this summer.
“CCEA will therefore continue to work with other awarding organisations to develop a robust process for awarding grades. The plan is to use a combination of prior achievements, internal teacher-assessed tracking information, predicted grades and analysis and modelling of existing data trends to provide the necessary assurance about the robustness, accuracy and fairness of the grades being awarded.”
Mr Weir said that more details will be provided when “the examination professionals have concluded their work”.
CCEA welcomed the decision and sought to reassure “parents, teachers and school leaders that CCEA will work urgently with the Department of Education to finalise a solution for examinations”.
CCEA also said that the body “recognises the need for clarity, as soon as possible” and that it has a “range of tried and tested methods for awarding grades”.
In a statement, CCEA wrote: “We will prioritise final solutions for A-level examinations, then GCSE terminal examinations, the AS qualifications and finally modular GCSE. We will also work with vocational qualification providers to ensure there are solutions for those qualifications.”
The curriculum and examinations body said it will be “guided by examination experts and will ensure that our solution is fair and reliable”.
The UK’s Department of Education said that pupils can appeal their results “if they do not believe the correct process has been followed in their case”.
It added: “If pupils do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance, they will have the opportunity to sit an exam at the earliest reasonable opportunity, once schools are open again. Students will also have the option to sit their exams in summer 2021.”
However, it is unclear if these options are open to pupils in the north and a letter from Northern Ireland’s Education Minister, Peter Weir, did not mention any such options.
Education Minister Peter Weir also said that that work will be carried out with Further and Higher Education sectors as regards admissions procedures.
Queen’s University confirmed that the admissions process this year is set to change. In line with the cancellation of A-Level exams, Queen’s University said it will admit students on “the basis of academic data available to date and projected future performance”.