Education Minister Peter Weir has published new guidance setting out how schools should plan to reopen.
The New School Day guidance has been designed by the Department of Education, school leaders and partners.
Among the plans is a possible “no bell” strategy with flexible class times to cut pupil flow in busier schools.
On Thursday, Mr Weir announced that the 2m social distancing rule would be reduced to 1m between pupils, when schools reopen in September.
The minister said this was to allow “full classes to attend” school as lockdown restrictions are eased.
As he published the guidance on Friday, Mr Weir said: “My ambition has always been, and remains, for the full-time resumption of classroom-based learning for all pupils as soon as it is safely possible to do so.”
He said he appreciates the stresses felt by teachers, parents and pupils “during this time of disruption and uncertainty”.
“Although our overall approach to managing the Covid-19 virus must rightly remain cautious, today is a positive step forward in providing a road map to plan for the reopening of schools in two months’ time.”
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has said expectations need to be managed about the reopening of schools.
The guidance published on Friday says:
- There will be circumstances where, because of small classrooms and other limitations it may not be possible for all schools to move towards full attendance at the same time.
- It therefore says that there will be an element of part-time learning here.
- Primary school pupils should be in school a minimum of two days a week with the remaining time for remote learning
- Post primary schools might be able to return to full-time education if they implement a bubble model
- Post-primary schools that can’t do that should have pupils in school a minimum of 50% of the time.
- Some of the guidance will apply to special schools but further specific guidance for special and early years schools is being developed.
The guidance also says that consideration may be given to a “no bell” strategy which allows “a degree of flexibility on class start/finish times and avoids the intensity of flow which many schools experience”.
“It also provides a calm and managed experience which better prepares staff and pupils for the next session.”
Earlier, the vice president of the NAHT, Graham Gault, said comments by First Minister Arlene Foster on Thursday were “unrealistic and undeliverable”.
Mrs Foster told BBC NI’s The View the executive wanted “to get everybody back to school in September”.
Mr Gault said that would need “very drastic changes”.
Scotland ‘looking carefully’ at NI decision
Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish government is looking carefully at the decision in Northern Ireland to reduce physical distancing in schools.
At her daily briefing on Friday, Mrs Sturgeon said the advice she had been given was that 2m was the appropriate distance between people to inhibit the spread of coronavirus.
The Scottish Government’s plan at the moment is for all schools to reopen on 11 August, but with learning happening at home as well as in schools.
Mr Gault, who is principal of Maghaberry Primary School, said he had measured his own classrooms and could manage 15 pupils rather than the usual 30.
“At the moment it looks likely, if nothing changes, that I’ll be able to welcome back half of my school cohort,” he told BBC News NI’s Good Morning Ulster.
On Friday, Mr Weir told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback “the direct threat to young people is extremely low” from Covid-19 and their continued absence from school is “damaging”.
Mr Gault said “great progress” had been made in recent days and trade unions have worked with the Department of Education to create “workable solutions” on how to manage school numbers safely.
However, in response to a suggestion by the first minister that schools should “find extra space”, such as assembly and dining halls, as well as “facilities beside the schools”, Mr Gault added the comments “stopped me from sleeping last night”.
He added: “Schools want our children to be back full-time, it’s what we crave, but that’s not going to happen unless something very drastic changes.”
By Robbie Meredith, BBC News NI Education Correspondent
There is a hope that as many children can go back to as many schools as possible, as often as they can, come September.
We’re not at the stage though of most schools being able to take pupils back full-time, I think everyone would admit that, most principals certainly.
Who knows where we might be in mid-August.
I understand that in the guidance that comes out today there will be that aspiration to get all children back to school full time, but that part time element has been flagged up.
The fact that primary school children will probably only be in school around two days or half of a week, that most post-primary children will be in one week in every two, that guidance is still in there, it hasn’t disappeared.
Julie Thomas, principal of Clandeboye Primary School in Bangor, told Good Morning Ulster the reduction of social distancing guidelines has welcomed, however “has not given us any more hope that we will be able to bring the entire school community back into our building”.
“It’s very important that at this point we do not overpromise the parents what we are going to be able to deliver once we enter the new academic year.”
Methodist College Belfast Principal Scott Naismith said: “The minister has been overly optimistic in his assessment that this will enable many schools to accommodate all pupils each day.”
He said “favourable pupil-staff ratios and accommodation” means Methody’s preparatory schools can “get all the pupils back all the time from August”, however, complexities in the senior school means “at best we will get half the school accommodated safely in line with the new rules”.
Mr Weir also told Talkback that guidance would be issued to schools on Friday afternoon, but acknowledged further work is needed on travel arrangements for pupils getting to school, particularly on public transport.
“Unless there’s better solutions that are found which enable much larger numbers of people to be on transport, I think there’s no doubt that will be a level of difficulty.”