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Northern Ireland's schools reduce social distancing rules to one metre
18 June 2020, 19:55
Northern Ireland has announced social distancing will be reduced to one metre in schools to get pupils back into the classroom.
First Minister Arlene Foster hoped the new measure would allow most children to return to full-time education in the autumn.
She said the majority of primary and secondary schools in the nation would be able to operate "close to normality" by easing the restriction.
Although pupils will be able to enjoy interacting at the reduced distance, teachers will still need to adhere to the initial two-metre social distancing rule, ministers in the power-sharing executive decided.
Northern Ireland's schools have been closed since lockdown began in March, disrupting the summer term that would usually end in June.
Staff will return to schools on 17 August while key year groups - seven, 12 and 14 - will return a week later on 24 August. The rest of the school population will return to classrooms at the start of September.
Upon return, all primary school children - and secondary school children in younger year groups - will have to remain in protective bubbles limited to their own classes.
Education Minister Peter Weir, who is due to publish new guidance on Friday to help schools plan for the autumn, said the reopening plans had been agreed following consultation with school leaders and trade unions
Ms Foster confirmed the plans would be kept under constant review during the summer in line with the latest data on coronavirus.
"I do very much welcome the progress today as a major step forward towards normality in our schools, because it has been a very tough time for our children, for parents and of course for the teachers who have been supporting them remotely," she said.
"And I know that everyone wants to get back to classroom teaching."
She added: "Our objective is to see a full-time return to classroom learning for all pupils as soon as possible when safe to do so.
"In the event that physical distancing is still required when schools return, the executive, following scientific and medical advice, has agreed that schools plan on the basis of one-metre distancing between pupils.
"After advice from the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, the Education Minister (Peter Weir) has advised that one-metre distancing will allow the school attendance pattern to return close to normality."
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill thanked teachers for their efforts during lockdown.
"The contribution that teachers have made over the course of recent months in the most challenging circumstances has been exceptional and we really, really commend all that you have done in trying to keep our children educated throughout this period, it hasn't been an easy journey for you all," she said.
Ms O'Neill added: "The objective is to have schools opened on a full-time basis and to make sure that all pupils are back into school for classroom-based learning in a way that is safe to do so."
It was one of a number of measures the First Minister said would be relaxed in the coming weeks.
Ministers also detailed plans for childcare providers and childminders to resume full services as the summer progresses, with all parents, not just key workers, being allowed to use childcare from July.
A business case has also been put together to continue to provide financial assistance to children eligible for free school meals over the summer, a move that will affect about 100,000 young people.
Away from childcare and education, guidance advising people in high-risk categories to shield during lockdown is to be paused at the end of July.
A provisional date for hair salons, barbers and nail bars to reopen has been set for 6 July, while church services are set to resume on 29 June.
There were no further coronavirus-linked deaths in the region on Thursday, leaving the total recorded by the Department of Health at 543.