Is Northern Ireland ready to go back to school?

17 Aug 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 17 Aug 2020

Every day's a school day
Every day's a school day

The local R number is above one, which is a potential disaster given schools are supposed to open their doors in a week or two. Renewed restrictions elsewhere could be needed.


The Education Minister is having a busy summer.

Last week’s A-level results were a fiasco – one that arrived at its inevitable conclusion at the start of this week, following a string of u-turns that fell like dominos.

On Monday morning, Peter Weir said that GCSEs were not to be subject to the same standardisation processes that proved so controversial for A-levels.

In making that announcement, the minister tried to draw a distinction between the two sets of exams: “I am conscious that for GCSEs, unlike at A-level, we do not have system level prior performance data for this group of young people.”

That, of course, did nothing to reduce the pressure on him and on CCEA to rip up the allocated A-level results, which saw 37% of all grades lowered in comparison to teachers’ predictions, and roll back on all downgrading.

By Monday afternoon – following in the footsteps of his equivalents in England, Scotland and Wales – Northern Ireland’s Education Minister was riding roughshod over his breakfast statement when he said: “I have just asked CCEA to ensure that all AS & A2 students now receive the highest of either their CAG (teacher assessed grades) or the grade provided by CCEA. This will safeguard students from NI so that they are not disadvantaged in comparison with other students in GB.”

After all that, Mr Weir would probably love a holiday. However, he isn’t likely to get one.

The minister is pushing hard for schools to return full-time and on time – and that means some pupils back in schools one week from now.

The goal is the correct one. Schools operating as normal – or as close to normal as possible - is perhaps the single highest policy priority for Stormont right now, in terms of adjusting society to function around the pandemic.

A public mood that wants to see children prioritised means the Education Minister has some flexibility in making his plans come together.

This flexibility could be crucial. There is an enormous desire for re-opening to succeed. Unfortunately, there are reasons to think it might not.


The minister released updated guidance on re-opening of schools last week. The Department of Education’s news release on the matter states that this guidance takes account of advice from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, and Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young.

The key aspect is that social distancing need not be followed by pupils.

If all children and young people had to remain two metres apart there would be no chance that schools could welcome all pupils on a full Monday-to-Friday timetable.

Per the minister: “My strategic objective has always been for the full-time resumption of classroom-based learning for all pupils as soon as possible, and when appropriate to do so. 

“This latest guidance takes into account the Executive’s agreement of 6 August that the requirement for strict social distancing between children may be relaxed in the presence of other mitigations. 

“In many ways, it reinforces practices we have all become accustomed to, promoting regular hygiene practices on arrival at schools and throughout the school day, and the application of the “catch it, bin it, kill it” principles.

“It also acknowledges that current social distancing guidance of 2m must continue to be followed between adults within the education sector.

“Within school, in circumstances where strict social distancing between children cannot reasonably be applied, the use of ‘protective bubbles’, decreasing interaction and movement around the school must be followed.  This additional mitigating measure has been applied successfully by other countries in their arrangements for reopening of schools.”

Other rules are that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms – such as a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, or loss or change to senses of taste or smell – should not attend school.

More could be added. Teaching union NASUWT has called for masks to be compulsory in classrooms in post-primary schools. This followed an announcement by Belfast Royal Academy that it was introducing this rule on its own initiative.

Naturally enough, the minister’s current guidance is not set in stone. Mr Weir has said it will remain “agile” and reflect public health needs, and so on. It might need to be.


The local R number has shot up recently. The latest estimate is that the reproductive rate of the virus in Northern Ireland is between 1.2 and 2. This is bad, bad news.

The Chief Scientific Officer has warned of the potential for complacency to affect people’s adherence to social distancing, leading to exponential increase of the virus.

“We’ve just had probably two months with very little evidence of the virus. No deaths for maybe 18, 20 days in a row; very few patients in hospitals. In that setting, it’s really hard for people to remember the importance of [social-distancing] behaviours.

“People relax, and they go back to what we still think of as normal. And if that happens, then it’s inevitable that we will see a further surge or significant increase…

“I’m hesitant to say we have done well. We are still at an early stage in this epidemic. In two months’ time, I would be in a better place to see if the measures we’ve taken are effective.”

Which brings us back to education. The effects of re-opening schools on infection rates is somewhat of an open question.


The Lancet has recently published two papers examining the re-opening of schools (Macartney and colleagues, and Panovska-Griffiths and colleagues).

Per an analysis of these two studies: “Reopening of schools is assumed to increase work-related contacts in adults and is accompanied by an increase in other contacts because of wider lifting of restrictions. Panovska-Griffiths and colleagues found that reopening schools (even partially) and the accompanying return to more normal contacts is likely to lead to a second wave of infections, unless testing is scaled up significantly…

“Both studies give potential options for keeping schools open and show the clear importance of adequate contact tracing and testing. Macartney and colleagues suggest that educational settings can remain open provided measures, such as contact tracing, quarantine, and even school closures, are in place to limit spread when cases occur. Panovska-Griffiths and colleagues suggest that the safe reopening of schools in the UK could occur if the TTI programme is greatly improved...

“We urgently need large-scale research programmes to carefully monitor the impact of schools reopening… Only in this way can we take the most appropriate measures to mitigate the risks and allow us to reassure parents, pupils, and teachers alike that schools are safe to attend.”

There could also be a major difference between the effects of re-opening primary and post-primary schools. Children tend to spread the virus less than adults. However, this mitigation might only hold for younger children – and, thus, primary schools.

Per that Lancet analysis: “If young children are less infectious than adults, then there must be an age when they start to become as infectious as older individuals. The French and Korean studies suggest that this might occur during adolescence, which could have major implications when schools, colleges, and universities return fully, as they must do soon.”


What about measures outside schools?

The name of the game is keeping the R number down, and the R number is the reproductive rate of the virus in the face of all the different restrictions in place at any given time (and, of course, people’s behaviours within that system).

R is probably around 1.6 now. It needs to be below 1. Re-opening schools will only increase the number (whether by a lot or just a little bit) and, right now, that could be disastrous.

However, if children and young people are to be a key priority, then schools must be a key priority.

So, while schools can and should be expected to take all reasonable precautions, there is only so much they can do. Efforts to reduce the R number may have to focus elsewhere.

This could be terrible news for pubs and restaurants, for adult sports (professional and amateur), for high streets, and more.

But it might be good news for the Education Minister. August has been a disaster for Mr Weir. He will desperately want the schools to re-open successfully (meaning: permanently, and safely).

What will make his job easier is that everyone else wants this too.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.