NEU considers that Stormont policy on Covid-19, based on UK advice, has been an ‘outlier’ amongst developed nations’ responses. Faced with a UK government with a sceptical track-record on the value of “experts”, and which has provided scant access to detailed scientific and public health modelling, NEU has shared the widespread concern that the decision to keep schools open is not in the best interests of the teachers, principals and children and young people who attend them. In particular, we fail to comprehend why the medical and scientific evidence and conclusions differ so radically in two jurisdictions on the same small island, let alone within the mainstream of European nations.

That confusion should end today with urgent action to address the increasing concern around the safety of pupils and all school staff in the face of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Advice issued to schools yesterday from the Department of Education stating that “We recommend all educational settings remain open unless advised otherwise”. We are concerned that this recommendation is now in violation of the Prime Minister’s direction to avoid ‘non-essential’ contact with others to curb coronavirus.

In the past 24 hours we have seen the closure of many public facilities in a bid to avoid gatherings and crowded spaces, everyone has been advised to work from home if they can, yet schools have been advised to remain open. This makes no sense.

NEU calls on the Minister to bring an end to this uncertainty by announcing the date for school closures. At this time of crisis the NEU will do all in our power to work with the Department of Education to ensure that staff, pupils and parent remain safe and informed.

We are appealing for the Department to work with the teachers representatives to ensure schools are provided with sufficient ability and guidance to plan for the period of closure. Provision must be made to ensure that inequalities and any detriment to pupil learning and welfare are mitigated whilst being mindful of the urgency and severity of the situation at hand.

Teachers are most concerned that those suffering underlying health issues along with those who have caring responsibilities are putting themselves and those they care for at increased risk too.

A clear communication to parents from the government must be made to allay fears and ensure that punitive sanctions in the event of parents withdrawing their children from school are not imposed.

We have all been endeavouring to advise members who are raising legitimate and urgent queries concerning the virus and its potential impact on their colleagues, the children and young people in their care for days now. The uncertain situation teachers and principals find themselves is intolerable.

We are being made aware by members of increasing numbers of colleagues who will not be attending school in the coming days due to health concerns arising from the virus spreading. Increasingly teachers are being informed by parents that they are keeping their children at home for the same reason. Schools have moved to re-jig school development days to extend the current St Patrick’s Day break. They are doing this unilaterally because they are receiving insufficient advice from elsewhere, no access to scientific and medical modelling and because they clearly feel it is better that the children and young people are not in school at this time.

It appears that our members and parents are voting with their feet. It cannot be that a “free for all” of this nature continues. A policy of “whatever you’re having yourself” cannot be safe.

NEU calls on the Minister to move now to bring an end to this dreadful uncertainty and announce that the schools will be closed from a date in the very near future, sufficient to enable schools to plan for the period of closure. We believe this to be in the public interest as well as that of our members.

We assure you that we are committed to playing our part in assisting the Department of Education and the Education employers in managing this public health crisis in so far as we can. We will work with employers to agree a protocol covering what teaching and learning can reasonably be expected throughout the period of closure,  but feel compelled to share the concerns of our members at this time.

We ask that schools be closed as a matter of urgency while we still have a modicum of control.

Mark Langhammer

Regional Secretary, NEU