Minister challenged on staffing levels amid absences at special schools

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Minister Peter Weir

By Rebecca Black PA

Concern has been raised around staffing levels at special schools.

Schools across Northern Ireland have been closed as part of a wide-ranging lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.

However, special schools remain open and vulnerable children and the children of key workers can still attend mainstream schools.

During a meeting of Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday, SDLP MLA Justin McNulty challenged Education Minister Peter Weir to do more to support “frightened” teachers.

He described being told of a special school where 90 out of 140 pupils were attending, but 38 of its 100 staff are absent.

Mr Weir said where substitute teachers can be provided, they will be sent into classrooms, but stressed there are fewer teachers qualified to work in special schools.

He said it was a difficult time for everyone and his officials are “liaising closely” with special schools.

“There is a clear need for those schools to be open, particularly for many parents who need that help in terms of their child being at school,” he said.

“If there are any issues where there are either resources or specific suggestions, we will certainly take those on board but there is not a perfect solution.”

Mr McNulty also raised concerns about the level of personal protective equipment being provided for teachers, adding that special school teachers “do not feel safe” in work.

Mr Weir said the department has followed the guidance for PPE provided.

“Public health has never recommended wearing full PPE for teachers,” he said.

Department of Education official Ricky Irwin, who also appeared at the committee, added that school leaders have been told that they have operational discretion in terms of maintaining safety.

“We understand that there is an issue around access to staffing and what we have said very clearly to them is, where they are faced with difficult decisions around the level of provision, they should in the first instance engage very closely with their support officers who will assist them as best they can in terms of making those difficult decisions and we’re also asking that they work closely with parents who are affected by those decisions,” he said.

“We are very aware of the issues that are being raised and we’re trying to support our schools as best we can.”

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