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‘Air filters and uniform flexibility needed’ as pupils struggle in cold classrooms

'I want to see our children succeed and be in school, but they need to be safe'

Air filters should be installed in schools as a way of protecting children and staff from Covid-19, a local teacher has said.

Jackie Coade, an Alliance representative for Newry and Armagh, has more than 20 years’ experience in the profession and currently teaches children with special educational needs at a school in Belfast.

She is also calling on all schools to show flexibility with school uniforms until after the winter months as children and young people face cold conditions in their classrooms.

At the moment, most schools have Co2 monitors and are advised to keep windows  open and classrooms well ventilated.

However, during an Assembly debate on Monday, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said providing HEPA air filters for every classroom in Northern Ireland would cost around £40 million.

“If the evidence supports such investment, I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds to the executive and the minister of finance.

“However, I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money,” she added.

MLAs had met to debate how to keep schools open amid a rise in Covid-19 cases and a shortage of teachers, following a petition from Sinn Féin backed by SDLP and Alliance.

Ms Coade said no one had ever said filters were going to be the magic solution but they were one mitigation that could make schools safer.

“More rigorous track and trace is another  as children are considered close contacts outside of school, but not inside school,” she said.

“We know there is spread of the virus in schools amongst staff and children, and we need adequate track and trace to limit spread and the time teachers are off.

“I have been contacted by a number of young people who are fearful of upcoming exam pressures because they haven’t had specialist teachers teaching their correct subject area. Many feel they haven’t been listened to.

“I want to see our children succeed and be in school, but they need to be safe.”

Ms Coade criticised a “lack of planning” from the Department of Education, particularly in terms of the the NI Substitute School Register (NISTR) which, she said, had contributed to the staff shortage.

She also highlighted her concerns about the latest announcement on the Engage programme, with Minister McIlveen informing principals this week that they can choose to take teachers out of this programme to address any staff shortages.

The programme aims to limit any long-term adverse impact of Covid-19 by supporting pupils’ learning through one-to-one or small group teaching.

“That causes huge problems, especially for our Special Educational Needs (SEN) children. Those children who were severely impacted by the pandemic at the beginning are going to be even more disadvantaged now,” said Ms Coade.

“School leaders have been bringing problems to the minister for a very long time and a lot of them feel they haven’t been listened to.

“More communication is also needed between the health and education departments at Stormont to keep our children safe in schools.”

The Sinn Féin motion was backed by a majority of assembly members, but it will not automatically lead to any changes in schools policy.

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