The closure of schools in Northern Ireland has been extended until at least March.
Stormont ministers backed a proposal from Education Minister Peter Weir to continue with the current arrangements, which only allow vulnerable children and those of key workers to attend class, until Friday March 5.
Whether or not schools will open fully on Monday March 8 remains in doubt and will depend on the public health situation.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was not possible to give a definitive date for a return to class and stressed the second week in March was the “earliest” schools could return.
Ministers will review the position again on February 18 amid concerns that a substantive reopening could yet be delayed until past Easter.
If the current remote learning arrangements are altered on March 8, all pupils may not be able to get back into classroom immediately and Mr Weir has raised the potential of a phased return, with children in key exam years returning first.
Mrs Foster said she knew the decision, while expected, would come as a disappointment to many pupils and parents.
“As a working mother with children still in full-time education I have a sense how difficult home schooling can be practically, educationally and emotionally,” she told an executive press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
“The kitchen table is no substitute for the school desk. And as my children would no doubt agree, parents are no substitute for trained teachers or lecturers.
“I am resolved, as is this executive, to get our young people back into the classroom as soon as possible.”
Ms O’Neill added: “Given the gravity of the situation we’re dealing with it will not come as a surprise to people that the executive has taken the difficult but necessary decision that remote learning for all educational settings will be extended until the 5th of March at the earliest.
“We understand how difficult and how worrying this situation is for young people and for children, for families and for school staff.
“Young people have had such a tough time over the last year and we’re really trying very hard to improve the situation to allow some normality to return to your lives and we really hope that that’s not too far away.
“But the situation in the here and now remains very difficult, and we need to keep going for a wee bit longer.”
Schools had been due to reopen after the mid-term break in the middle of February but there had been widespread expectation the date would be pushed back, given executive ministers had already decided to extend the region-wide lockdown to March 5.
Special schools have been permitted to remain open to all pupils during the current lockdown.
At Thursday’s executive meeting, Mr Weir also asked colleagues to support his call for special school teachers to be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations.
Ministers requested that further discussions take place between the Department of Health and Department of Education on the issue before considering their collective position.
Those between the ages of 65-69 can now book their COVID vaccine at one of the vaccination centres across the North.
This is another positive development with over 185,000 people in the North having received their first COVID vaccine dose.
Booking link: https://t.co/mDgQKtXzLj
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) January 28, 2021
Decisions on vaccination prioritisation are ultimately made on a UK-wide basis by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The deaths of further 13 people with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were announced on Thursday along with 592 new positive cases of the virus.
There were 768 patients with Covid-19 in hospital, including 67 in ICU.
At Thursday’s executive meeting, ministers were told that the reproduction rate for new cases of Covid-19 is between 0.65 and 0.8.
The R rate for hospital admissions is between 0.8 and 0.9 while for ICU admissions it is between 0.95 and 1.15.
Ministers were also be told that several other main indicators of the virus are tracking downward.
However, the lag period between infection and hospital admissions means the numbers of ICU admissions remains high.
From Thursday, people aged 65-69 were able to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at seven regional centres in Northern Ireland.
The move marked the start of a twin-track approach aimed at accelerating the vaccination process in the region.
While people aged 70 and over will continue to receive AstraZeneca jabs at GP practices, the Pfizer vaccine is being offered to the 65-69 age group in the mass centres.
The centres were originally set up to vaccinate health care staff.
Those aged 65-69 can now book a slot for vaccination at a centre using an online portal.
The initiative has been developed to ensure a batch of Pfizer vaccination allocated to Northern Ireland does not go to waste.
People aged 70 or over will be informed by their GP when they can receive a jab.