Education Minister Peter Weir gives schools guidance on how to resume classroom learning as lockdown restrictions are eased

Schools today received guidance from Education Minister Peter Weir on how to resume classroom learning in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Restart Programme has been designed by the Department of Education in consultation with school leaders, trade unions and sectoral support bodies and outlines a number of measures, including the use of ‘protective bubbles’ in schools where social distancing cannot be achieved.

With primary and post-primary schools due to welcome back the first cohort of pupils on 24 August, Minister Weir said: “This guidance in many ways reinforces practices we have all become accustomed to.

“It promotes regular hygiene practices on arrival at schools and throughout the school day and the application of the “catch it, bin it, kill it” principles.

“It builds on the Executive’s agreement of 18 June 2020, that the current social distancing guidance of two metres must continue to be followed between all adults and older year groups within the education sector, but that looking to a start-date of 24 August, a distance of one metre is an appropriate planning assumption between children and young people.”

The Minister added: “Today is an important starting point in the journey to reopening schools and reflects our current circumstances. We will continue to be guided by medical and scientific developments between now and 24 August.”

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Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots also confirmed today that planning was underway at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) over how they would educate students from September.

While the college would prefer to deliver its courses through face-to-face learning, Minister Poots said it would only occur in environments where social distancing could be observed, according to the public health guidelines.

The Minister explained: “Where this is not possible, CAFRE will provide remote learning for lectures using digital learning technologies. This has already proved very successful when introduced for students during the last academic year. Practical learning is the unique feature of all our programmes at Greenmount, Loughry and Enniskillen campuses.

The applied nature of the learning sets CAFRE graduates apart from their peers and is one of the main reasons that over 95 per cent of them are either in employment or further study following graduation. CAFRE will, therefore, continue to provide students with practical learning opportunities in line with the social distancing guidelines in place at that time.”

The safety and well-being of students and staff was the main priority of his Department, the Minister insisted, with teaching facilities, student accommodation, dining rooms and libraries also following the prevailing Public Health Agency guidance.

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Finance Minister Conor Murphy extended the emergency provision for tenants having difficulty paying rent on commercial leases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, tenants are protected from forfeiture on a lease until 30 June, 2020.

However with the economic recovery from lockdown only getting started, Minister Murphy decided the protective measure should be continued until 30 September 2020.

The Department of Finance also published today a new voluntary Code of Practice for landlords and tenants by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The code encourages tenants to continue to pay their rent in full if they can but also acknowledges landlords should provide support to businesses in difficulty.

The Minister said: “I understand the financial pressure on landlords where rent is outstanding; however, I would again appeal for leniency to be shown to businesses in difficulty. I welcome publication of this new Code of Practice which seeks to promote good practice between tenants and landlords, working together to get through this pandemic.”

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Health Minister Robin Swann today praised the work of the all-island Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) Network to ensure patients could still access treatment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Throughout the health emergency, Northern Ireland patients have been able to access surgical and interventional cardiology services in Dublin and families have also been able to stay together while their children undergo treatment.

A total of 40 children had cardiac surgery in Children’s Health Ireland (CHI) from January to May 2020, compared to 27 children for the same time period in 2019.

Minister Swann said: “The continued commitment and dedication of the Belfast and Dublin Paediatric Cardiology teams demonstrates what true partnership working in a modern day health service looks like.

“I have heard first-hand about the work the nursing, medical and surgical staff at Children’s Health Ireland in Crumlin are doing and it is thanks to them and their colleagues in the Belfast Trust that we are now on the road to building a world class Paediatric Cardiology programme across our two health systems.

“That in itself is a unique achievement. To weather the additional challenges placed on them by Covid-19, to continue providing critical surgeries and saving lives, is something special. I would like to extend my thanks to those staff involved in delivering this service and to Minister Simon Harris for their continued support. I would also extend my sincere thanks to the paediatric cardiology team in the Belfast Trust for their care and support of their patients.”

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