by David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
School children expressed hopes for a return to normality as all remaining year groups went back to classes in Northern Ireland.
Years 8 to 11 in post-primary schools returned on Monday morning.
They were the last age cohort to resume face-to-face learning in the region, with other pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools having gone back on a phased basis through March.
At Sullivan Upper grammar school in Holywood, Co Down, there was a buzz of excitement as pupils were reunited in the classrooms after months of remote learning.
But they were returning to a school environment very different to pre-pandemic times, with pupils asked to wear face masks indoors and numerous hand sanitising stations in operation.
Thank you @sullivan_upper for the invitation this morning to see the return of your Y8-11 cohort. Great to see your focus on overall student well-being. Lots of enthusiastic, happy faces who were thrilled to see their friends face to face again. pic.twitter.com/AD57TS0J6V— Peter Weir (@peterweirmla) April 12, 2021
Year 8 pupil Ben Borland from Belfast said being in a classroom was much preferable to learning from home.
“It’s been hard because the teachers have been posting stuff on Google Classroom and since there’s no teachers actually there with you it’s hard to kind of keep up and know what you’re doing properly, because there’s no one there to actually tell you how to do it,” he said.
“It’s good getting back to normality, so you can actually see people and actually be able to know what you’re doing properly in classes.”
Fellow Year 8 Effie Lappin, from Bangor, said the latest lockdown was not as strange as the first mass school closure last year, because she had got more used to it.
“It was sort of a bit more normal than it was the first time, but it was definitely odd,” she said.
Effie said wearing face masks in class took time getting used to.
“It’s definitely strange,” she said.
“It can get quite uncomfortable behind your ears. But it’s probably the best thing, so it’s okay.”
Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir, who visited Sullivan Upper on Monday morning, hailed the full return of all pupils to classes as a “very positive day for young people”.
Mr Weir said he felt the very youngest and very oldest in society had “suffered most” during the pandemic.
“I think this is important, not simply from an educational point of view but for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people to be back in with their friends in class, and it’s something I very much welcome,” he said.
Mr Weir said he hoped a range of voluntary summer activities being drawn up by his department would provide opportunity for pupils to “catch up” on what they missed during lockdown.
“We have got to remember there is a lot of good work that has been done directly by way of remote learning, particularly everyone has been a lot more prepared for that from January, so it’s not as if education itself stopped during this period,” he said.
Among the Covid-19 mitigations in place for the education sector is the availability of home-based lateral flow testing for older pupils.
Mr Weir said he hoped Northern Ireland had seen the last of coronavirus-forced school closures.
“Nobody can give an absolute guarantee going into the future but there is a range of mitigations that have been put in place,” he added.