The risk of Covid-19 transmission is greater at the school gates than in the classroom, a Public Health Agency official has said.
Days ahead of a Stormont Executive discussion on the reopening of schools, 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.
The pandemic death toll reached 2,000 on Monday with four further deaths with covid, while the daily case number was recorded at 232.
Most schools have been closed since before the Christmas break as part of a lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Special schools have remained open and mainstream schools are open for the children of key workers.
Ministers are set to discuss a potential date for the reopening of all schools when they meet on Thursday.
Dr McClean said the evidence shows that in schools the risk to staff is not zero, but no higher than to other members of the workforce.
“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 Stephen 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, where people meet, coronavirus has the opportunity to spread and this is why it is so difficult for the Executive, they have to strike a balance between keeping every single one of our interactions to a minimum but also allowing society to function is some way,” she said.
“Overall the message for every single one of us still is every single contact matters, keep your contacts as low as possible, stay at home and only have contact with other people when you really have to.”
The Stormont Executive is also expected to discuss the future reopening of businesses, including shops and the hospitality sector, on Thursday.
NEWS: Planning Must Start Now!
HU calls on Executive to engage with the hospitality industry to develop plans for future reopening as review phase approaches ⬇️
— Hospitality Ulster #HelpOurHospitality (@HospUlster) February 15, 2021
Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill and Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts have said businesses should be included to allow them to prepare.
Mr Neill said the hospitality sector has been the “worst hit” in lockdown and urged that lessons be learned.
“Let’s be proactive, let’s get a plan in place well in advance and fight back and accelerate the recovery,” he said.
Mr Roberts said preparations should start now to allow non-essential retail to reopen at a later date.
He said Covid marshalls, public hand sanitisers and business compliance with regulations must all be in place, with the Executive, councils and businesses working together to produce a reopening plan for high streets.
“Furthermore, we need to hear a lot more hope in the messages coming from the Executive to give businesses and the broader community confidence that the vaccine rollout will lead to recovery and some degree of normality,” he said.
“More light and less tunnel is needed from the Executive in its communication.”