Last week, I met the Minister Peter Weir with a delegation of education union representatives. At that meeting we agreed a slightly later target date for pupils to return, 24 August. The earlier proposal would have seen teachers back in school on week starting 10th August to plan to receive pupils on 17 August.

We also accepted, pragmatically, that to get more children back to classroom learning, that a managed reduction to 1 metre distancing is a risk worth taking.

The ‘School Restart, along with adequate childcare, is a vital mechanism to enable the wider economy to restart. The interest of the Government is to get as many teachers and pupils in school to restart learning, and to enable a wider return to work, and an ease-out of furlough.

The distancing measures are broadly, but not wholly, along the lines of the Denmark Model:

  • A 2m distance between adults (teachers, classroom assistants) and pupils.
  • A reduced social distance between pupils of 1m, as endorsed by the World Health Organisation.

These measures are mitigated by:

Education to be undertaken in protective bubbles, whereby children stick together in groups or bubbles of 4, 5 or 6 throughout the school-day in class, corridor or playground, to minimise conduct.

  • A teacher to pupil ratio of 1 to 10.
  • All measures are subject and responsive to changes in the R infection rate and the science generally, and with school-level risk assessments.

So why did NEU accede to these measures?

The National Education Union has taken a responsible stance on behalf of our members throughout the Covid-19 emergency. Our teachers and educators fully understand the sacrifices and challenges others have made throughout the society. Some have lost their jobs, others have seen their work dry-up, many small businesses have folded and many more are on ‘short-time’ or restricted hours. An unacceptably high number have perished. Teachers appreciate that they still have their work, albeit largely from home and are still, for the most part, fully paid. NEU members are not unaware of the world around them.

NEU was rightly critical of the initial response of the UK Government, whose Mathusarian tactic of herd immunity we saw as irresponsible. We weren’t alone, with the BMA and nursing professional bodies concurring. Test ceased on 12th March! Contact-tracing is still in its infancy. PPE supply has be undermined by the “just in time” corporate procurement now prevalent in the NHS. Care homes were an after-thought, with disastrous consequences. We were denied sight of ‘the science’ until Imperial College’s research was leaked. The only ‘world-beating’ aspect of the UK response has been the atrocious death-rate. This ideological, Darwinesque, anarchistic push from the libertarian-right set an unfortunate tone from which we should all continue to guard.

The botched ‘closure’ of schools in Northern Ireland, with 450+ schools remaining open to receive, on average, just two, three or four children of key workers, was a reflection of local political difference. Far too many schools opened during lockdown and teachers could do little about this.

NEU have nonetheless contributed positively with the Minister and Department to find ways forward. Our detailed 33-page discussion document “On a return to Education in Northern Ireland” was widely praised as a positive pupil-centred contribution when presented publicly and to the Assembly Education Committee. Our teachers and educators have continued to work long hours, well beyond the constricts of their contracts.

Teachers well understand that disadvantage is compounded for the most marginalised pupils during lockdown, but with infection rates dropping, and the economy struggling, we have accepted that calculated risks are required for some sort of normalisation to occur. Our recent meeting with the Minister on 18th June was wholly constructive and collegiate.

However, the push for ‘School Restart’ is not without its risks. In accepting more relaxed social distancing in schools the part of the ‘Danish’ mix NEU did not get was the 1 to 10 Teacher-Pupil ratio we wanted. This is integral to the Danish model.   

The great “known unknown” is how many teachers will return in August? Notably those with underlying conditions, or in one of the vulnerable categories.  Or those ‘home-schooling their own children, or with limited childcare.  The “Stay at Home” rate could be 10%, or 30% - no-one can be certain. If it were at the higher end of that spectrum, there will be a serious teacher shortage – given that our ‘ballpark’ teacher-pupil ratio is likely to be around 1 to 15 or higher.  That will necessitate 2 teachers for 1 class. A safer ratio of 1 to 10 ratio will require more teachers, period.

More teachers for new signature project?

So, we need more teachers. And Northern Ireland has an ample supply of newly qualified teachers, of high quality, to apply to the task. The General Teaching Council advise that only around 1 in 5 of new graduates get a job in their first year, post qualification.

Over the weekend it has emerged that the UK Government may seek to provide close to £1 billion to apply to a successful school-restart. The Northern Ireland share (or “Barnett consequential” as you will hear politicians explain in days to come) could be as much as £30million. In that event, NEU is calling for significant funds to meet ‘school-restart costs and notably for additional staffing costs needed to manage social-distancing in schools and to meet the safer teacher pupil ratio of 1 to 10.

A further factor is that our schools’ ‘estate’ is creaking. Many schools are old buildings, often distressed and with constricted space. The Department of Education maintenance budget has been heavily constrained for a decade. The backlog is horrendous. 

Several years ago, a “signature” project of the NI Executive saw qualified teachers, many of whom were new graduates, being employed to assist schools address literacy and numeracy standards. The scheme worked well, is easily understood be schools and provides the ideal mechanism to quickly recruit more teachers to assist school-restart. The NISTR (substitute teachers) list needs to be exhausted, too. And, in extremis, we should ‘shout’ for assistance from recently retired teachers.

Beware Complacency – a second spike

In moving towards a school-restart, and a wider re-opening of the economy, complacency is our enemy.  There are worrying signs of a second-spike of coronavirus, even from countries whose response to C-19 has been exemplary.

Over 460,000 deaths have occurred worldwide and case numbers are approaching 8.7 million.[1] Although China has now dropped out of the “Top 20” in terms of reported infections and deaths, Beijing has reverted to a second lockdown in the wake of a new infection-spike as lockdown eased.

China has released genome sequencing data for the coronavirus responsible for the recent outbreak in Beijing, with officials saying on Friday it identified a European strain based on preliminary studies. Details published on China’s National Microbiology Data Centre website revealed the genome data was based on samples collected on June 11th, the same day Beijing reported its first new local Covid-19 infection in months. In the eight days since, the city has reported a total of 183 cases, linked to the sprawling wholesale food centre of Xinfadi in the city’s southwest.

Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official Zhang Yong . According to preliminary genomic and epidemiological study results, the virus is from Europe, but it is different from the virus currently spreading in Europe. It’s older than the virus currently spreading in Europe.

The latest new case numbers out of South Korea, where for so long the COVID-19 crisis seemed well under control, underline just how difficult it is to curb fresh outbreaks. The Republic reported 48 new confirmed infections reported on Saturday. Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Director Jung Eun-kyeong noted that “Transmissions are happening at eateries and pubs… if there is a patient present, there is a high possibility of virus spread at these crowded and confined places where people consume food and drinks, and engage in conversations without wearing their masks".

South America now occupies three positions in the top ten countries by case numbers, as the pandemic is spreading fast in Brazil, Peru and Chile, whilst India remains a serious cause for concern.

Europe in denial? Azerbaijan, a cautionary tale.

Our biggest threat is complacency. This virus is not “over”, nor close to it.  There is a strange kind of 'denial' going on in Europe among many with the belief that there is a predictable set of ‘stages’ that Covid-19 follows - growth, lockdown, suppression, decline, then normality again. In essence, the “Stages” narrative in Europe – from which Northern Ireland and the UK is not immune – is a sort of ‘candy’ to reassure the population that all is in control and manageable.  For avoidance of doubt, Asia is not seeing it like this.

I am in touch with one local teacher, Dr. Patrick Walsh, from Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch and currently teaching in Azerbaijan. There, the active cases are very close to 5,000 with a daily ‘high’ of 338 last week and 6 deaths for a total 139. Pat wrote to me last week:

“I have been keeping a close eye on Azerbaijan as a model for response to Covid19 and very worrying things have happened. Azerbaijan imposed the strictest quarantine measures outside of Wuhan. It closed all borders on March 17th and has had complete curfews with no movement allowed out of houses for two months. For the past month it has operated weekend curfews but allowed for a return to work. Two weeks ago, it allowed shops to reopen in limited hours and restaurants etc. A spike has occurred with 5000 new cases. Now it is keeping all borders closed until August at least and imposing a complete curfew for four weeks on all citizens. There have been 35 deaths in a population of 10 million. If these measures can’t stop Covid, then how is Europe going to reopen without a resurgence? Everywhere you look there is a resurgence and if the same measures are taken again, we could be looking at Spring 2021 before there is any hope of normality.” 

A cautionary message indeed!