No date for NI school opening expected until next week despite Executive meeting on Thursday

The Northern Ireland Executive is not expected to announce a date for school reopening until next week, it is understood.

The Executive is due to meet on Thursday to discuss the current lockdown restrictions and, while school reopening will be discussed it is unlikely a decision will be taken at this week’s meeting.

As things stand, the strict lockdown that has been in place since December 26 is set to expire on Saturday, March 6 with the closure of schools set to come to an end on Monday, March 8.

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But Health Minister Robin Swann and senior officials in his department have been urging a cautious approach to any possible easing of restrictions.

Remote learning packs at St Ronan's Primary School in Newry, Co Down.

Education Minister Peter Weir, meanwhile, said last week that the reopening of schools is a decision that will be made by the Executive as a whole.

Speaking during a meeting of the Stormont education committee, Mr Weir also said that he would like to give schools two week’s notice before the reopening goes ahead.

With no announcement expected on Thursday, if the March 8 date is to be kept an announcement will have to be made next week to allow a fortnight of preparation.

Meanwhile, a Public Health Agency official has said the risk of Covid-19 transmission is greater at the school gates than in the classroom.

Dr Joanne McClean paid tribute to the work done to keep pupils and staff safe inside the classroom.

But she said that while the classroom environment can be controlled, mixing outside it cannot be.

Special schools have remained open and mainstream schools are open for the children of key workers.

“Schools are not the major source of transmission … the risk for the staff in the classroom is not higher than other workforces and part of that is due to the excellent measures that schools have put in place,” she told the BBC’s ‘Nolan Show’.

“Schools have done a huge amount, principals have worked themselves into the ground from September onwards to introduce ways of working in schools that are completely new to them.”

But she added that children and staff “cannot be magicked” into school classrooms.

“There are two bits to this, there’s the bit that goes on in the classroom that schools can control ... and then there is the bit that goes on outside the gates,” she said.

“You just need to look at a school – a child goes to school, all the measures are in place but the minute they come out that door, there is mixing and parents mixing.”

Dr McClean said schools being open adds an estimated 0.3-0.6 to the reproduction number, or R value, of the virus.

“Every single contact matters,” she added. “Where people meet, coronavirus has the opportunity to spread and this is why it is so difficult for the Executive.”