An update for members in FE and HE is also set out below.

Schools

The revised guidance for schools is here: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance for Schools and Educational Settings in Northern Ireland | Department of Education (education-ni.gov.uk)

The guidance is divided into four sections:

There is specific guidance for special schools. Please also see the covering letter from Minister which explains the background and rationale to the revised guidance. NEU had sight of the draft guidance last Friday afternoon with a deadline of 11:00am on Monday to make a response. The NEU response was in line with other NITC teacher unions, as well as the responses form the non-teacher unions. We endorsed the comments made that the engagement with trade unions was not sufficient. Giving trade unions the draft guidance only on Friday with a response deadline of Monday morning is not genuine consultation. We did understand that DE was waiting for the deliberations of the NI Executive (who met last Thursday) in respect of relaxing restrictions, and in particular decisions on bubbles and face coverings, but the rest of the guidance could have been shared widely in advance to aid discussion, and feedback, from school leaders, staff, and their unions.

The NEU position remains that the mitigation measures previously in place could have been kept in place for the start of term, and then gradually relaxed when infection rates etc. reduce – we continue to have concerns about the impact that the Delta strain will have upon the opening of schools.

The NEU argued that the guidance needed to be clear that when mitigation measures are changed then the school risk assessment, as well as individual staff risk assessments, must be reviewed. We argued that where bubbles change/end, and more interaction and meetings take place, risk assessments for vulnerable staff must be reviewed to take account of these changes. We share the frustration that the decision to removal bubbles but simultaneously suggest that they remain a good idea is contradictory. We also have concerns that the removal of bubbles will mean that different groups of children (up to 8 groups if there are 8 periods in the school day) will be using the same desks, seats, equipment in a classroom which will require a stricter cleaning regime – both in terms of staffing (who carries out the cleaning) and in disruption time when classes are changing. This should have been addressed in the guidance.

NEU believe that ventilation and temperatures should be assessed as part of the wider risk assessment process. We are keen that schools are supported to ensure that risk assessments are updated to address the issue of ventilation.

As we move into the autumn term NEU believe that schools also need additional, and clear, guidance to give to parents to expect a cooler school than normal. There are already concerns that parents and pupils will start to complain about the cold when it falls below the recommended legal level of 16°C. 

For reference, NEU NI produced advice for members. This built on the wider NEU UK guidance and we note that much of the guidance is replicated in the DE guidance, but suggested that the revised guidance should be clear, and that resources are made available centrally for schools who identify the need for increased ventilation provision.

Staffing issues

The guidance on workforce issues (e.g. covid absences etc.) is being reviewed but the most recent guidance on how schools should support staff.

Pre-school education settings

DENI Have advised that separate guidance documents for pre-school education settings are no longer required and the previous guidance published on 5 March 2021 has been stood down.

In order to support contact tracing, pre-school children should be encouraged to stay within a consistent group of children wherever possible. Those within such groups will not be expected to socially distance, however distancing within classes should be maximised wherever possible, based on physical capacity and the activities that pupils are engaged in.

Pre-school settings, in helping pre-school pupils to settle in to face to face learning, may find the guidance on Induction and Transition helpful. 

Further education

Following the Executive meeting on 12th August it has been agreed that FE Colleges and NSCs (and HEIs) can now move to Stage 5 of the Pathway out of Restrictions, effective from Monday 16 August. 

This move facilitates the full return to face-to-face teaching for all students in the new academic year and as ‘normal’ an academic learning environment as possible. Stage 5 has been enabled by the agreement to remove social distancing in the classroom environment.

All other mitigations contained within the Framework for the Safe Resumption of On-Site Educational Provision and Related Activity must remain in place and should still be adhered to, including:

  • wearing face coverings at all times on campus;
  • the continued use of good hand hygiene;
  • maintaining 2 metre social distancing outside the classroom environment;
  • ensuring that surfaces are regularly cleaned and sanitised;
  • risk assessments and safe systems of work should be updated in line with existing HSE guidance and to reflect today’s changes, before the re-opening of premises and activities conducted on and off premises;
  • continuation of the agreed track and trace procedures; and
  • continue with the provision of Lateral Flow Self Testing (LFT) at FE college campuses for staff and students.

The executive has agreed to change the rules on self-isolation and therefore track and trace procedures should be updated to reflect this. 

NEU will continue to engage with the DE Restart team, and the FE TUS group, and monitor how the guidance is being applied as educational settings, including schools, colleges, and pre-school settings re-open for the incoming academic year.

NEU members with concerns about the impact of the revised guidance can get in touch with the officers in the NEU NI Office.

Northern Ireland
Letter to Schools DE covid-19 guidance

The guidance seeks to build upon the experiences of school leaders and staff since the start of the pandemic and allow schools greater flexibility to determine how much of the guidance will be applied in their school..