A controversial plan to take primary school children in Northern Ireland back out of classes for the week prior to the Easter holidays has been scrapped.
The move was agreed by the Stormont Executive on Thursday, but ministers put back decisions on the return of other school cohorts to class to next week when a wider review of lockdown restrictions will take place.
The Executive meeting also saw ministers agree to extend a financial support measure that has exempted businesses in certain sectors, including hospitality, tourism and retail, from paying rates.
After the meeting, First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill indicated that next week’s lockdown review was also likely to bring announcements on the easing of some restrictions impacting wider society.
Thousands of P1 to P3s returned to school on Monday as the first cohort of pupils to go back to face-to-face learning in the region since the most recent Covid-19 lockdown was introduced.
Nurseries and pre-schools also reopened to all children on Monday.
The next children due back are secondary school pupils in key exam years – year groups 12-14 – on March 22.
Under Stormont’s original plan, P1-P3, nursery and pre-school children were due to resume remote learning in that week, to minimise the impact on community infection rates of the secondary school return.
That proposal had faced criticism from parents and school leaders.
Ministers agreed at Thursday’s Executive meeting that those young children should stay in class.
Education Minister Peter Weir also wants all remaining primary school children – P4 to P7s – to go back to school on March 22, and all remaining secondary pupils – years 8 to 11 – to return after the Easter holidays on April 12.
The Executive will consider those proposals on Tuesday.
Prior to Monday, only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers had been permitted in school since January.
Mrs Foster said her party would have liked to have moved quicker on announcing return dates for the other year groups.
“I would have liked to have moved a bit further in relation to the other cohorts but what we’re doing is the (Executive) task force is looking at this in a strategic way and we will make announcements on Tuesday around the other cohorts,” she said.
“We’ll try and give as much certainty and clarity around that as we possibly can, we’ve always said we want to give as much time as we can and I know that the Education Minister is speaking to principals and to parents and to organisations all the time to get people ready to go back to school.”
Ms O’Neill said the return of schools had to be “safe and sustainable”.
She said ministers wanted to avoid a scenario of moving too quickly and having to halt face-to-face learning again.
Ms O’Neill said ministers were assessing the impact of the return of P1 to P3s and also looking at evidence from places where children have already been back in classes for a period, such as Scotland.
“The Executive has prioritised the return to school and we want to see that done as soon as it’s safe to do so,” she said.
“We have made progress today we did say this would be a phased and a staged process.
“It’s really important that whenever children return to school that they stay there.”
Ms O’Neill said it was important that teachers, parents and children were all given plenty of notice on when they were likely to go back.
“I’m hoping that we at least at the very minimum will be able to give dates if, all been well, at the start of next week,” she said.
“But it must be safe and it must be sustainable, but it must include a notice period also.”
The ministers also made clear that they expected to be announcing some moves away from the wider restrictions on society next Tuesday.
Mrs Foster suggested there could easements in respect of outdoor sports.
“Our pathway (lockdown exit strategy) has nine different sectors and so we’re looking across all of those sectors,” the First Minister said.
“We will want to make those announcements, obviously the Assembly is sitting on Tuesday, so we will be making them there after the Executive meets.”
Ms O’Neill made clear it would be unlikely that any announcements on restrictions made on Tuesday would come into effect before Easter.
“We were upfront and honest enough to say that we didn’t expect there to be any major shifts before Easter, I think that remains the case,” she said.
“But I think we also have to give people hope around what’s coming down the tracks and allow people time to plan.
“So I hope that we are in a position to be able to say a lot more about what the post-Easter era looks like.”
The ministers also used their post-Executive press conference to urge people to act responsibly around upcoming dates in the calendar that are usually associated with social gatherings. They said it was important people continue to adhere to the rules over St Patrick’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Easter.
The rates holiday, which affects 29,000 businesses, is to be extended by a further 12 months at a cost of £230 million.
At Thursday’s meeting, ministers also agreed a separate time limited support package for travel agents that will enable eligible business to claim grants of up to £10,000.
Meanwhile, the deaths of nine more people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were announced by Stormont’s Department of Health on Thursday, along with another 223 positive cases of the virus.