Minister outlines guidance for special schools

Guidance setting out how special schools should plan for the reopening of classes were published today by the Education Minister Peter Weir.

The guidance, which is a supplement to the ‘New School Day’ guidance which was issued to all schools on 19 June, is designed to ensure special schools can resume services for vulnerable children and young people in as safe and effective manner as possible.

Minister Weir explained: “Pupils who attend special schools are among our most vulnerable children and young people. These pupils, their parents and carers have been significantly impacted by the lack of structure and learning that schools provide to them.

“I am aware that many special schools have expressed concerns about the number and complexity of considerations in relation to the safe reopening of their schools, including staffing levels and ensuring the right levels of support are in place for pupils.

“The key objective of this document is to ensure that services to vulnerable children and young people, including those with Special Educational Needs, are re-instated in a safe and effective manner when schools return to operation.”

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that schools will reopen for staff from 17 August and for priority groups of pupils from 24 August.

The Minister acknowledged it might not be possible for all special schools to meet these dates as some of the children who attend are three years of age, while other settings may only be a nursery, primary or post-primary.

He added: “This guidance promotes a flexible approach for the reopening of special schools but they should still aim to have some children returning to school from 24 August 2020. My objective is to maximise face-to-face teaching time for all pupils at the earliest opportunity.”

In other news, funding worth £60,000 was today given to Women’s Aid to provide care packages for families who have been victims of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The package was announced as the Health Minister Robin Swann, Justice Minister Naomi Long, and Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín reminded victims of domestic or sexual abuse during the pandemic of the help available to them.

Announcing the funding, Minister Swann said: “We are acutely aware of how difficult lockdown has been for those affected by domestic abuse. We want people to know that they are not alone and that help continues to be available 24/7.

“The Department of Health has provided Women’s Aid with an additional £60,000 to provide an initial care package for families who have experienced, or been a victim of, domestic abuse. This package will provide food parcels, home based resources and games for families, including laptops and mobile phones.”

Mindful that the easing of lockdown posed particular challenges for victims trying to leave abusive homes, Minister Naomi Long added: “Our three Departments continue to work together to ensure essential services can continue to operate effectively during Covid-19 and remain fully available. For example, the 24hr Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline received an additional £20,000 at the start of the pandemic.

“Additional guidance has also been published so that people can easily access, in one place, the contact details for different support organisations at www.justice-ni.gov.uk/publications/covid-19-guidance-support-victims-domestic-abuse

Minister Ni Chuilin said: “Victims of domestic violence and abuse often feel they are on their own, with nowhere to turn but I can assure them that support is available.

“The provision of safe and secure accommodation is undoubtedly a top priority when considering fleeing an abusive relationship. Covid-19 has brought this in to even more stark reality for many as we have used our homes as our place of safety during this time.

“My department has increased temporary accommodation places available for victims of domestic abuse and provided additional funding to refuges.”

Anyone in immediate danger in their home is urged to phone the police on 999 or, if it is difficult to talk, to use the ‘silent solution’ by pressing 55 when prompted.

The 24 Hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline can also be contacted on 0808 802 1414 and is a free and confidential service available to both women and men. Web chat is also available at dsahelpline.org or email help@dsahelpline.org

Minister Ní Chuilín also confirmed that the current restrictions on libraries will be relaxed to allow their reopening in mid-July in a manner which maximises safety for the public and staff.

The Department for Communities has been working closely with Libraries NI to establish appropriate measures to ensure the reopening of Libraries will be as safe as possible.

While digital services had been made available to people of all ages by the sector, the Minister noted: “Some people are not able, or do not wish to access online services. These customers are often amongst those who are most socially isolated in society.

“The reopening of libraries, which are a key part of our social fabric, will help these individuals and improve their lives by creating a sense of returning to a new normal. Libraries NI is a highly professional and capable organisation. I am confident that they will be able to reopen in a way that minimises risk to their staff and the general public.”

Libraries NI has plans in place to reopen libraries with a ‘book and collect’ service, alongside a phased programme of reintroducing browsing and limited IT services.

Due to the very high number of books borrowed before lockdown, Libraries NI is also asking customers in advance of reopening to return borrowed items to their local library, if possible, with times to be announced.

Libraries NI will continue to renew books for customers in the interim and further announcements will be made on Libraries NI’s website (www.librariesni.org.uk) and social media channels regarding opening dates, order times, returns and collections for each branch.

Meanwhile, changes to insolvency and company legislation will help companies manage the financial and practical difficulties posed by Covid-19, Economy Minister Diane Dodds revealed.

As the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill came into effect, Minister Dodds said it would ensure Northern Ireland remains in step with measures in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Minister said: “The pandemic has brought with it unprecedented challenges and unforeseen consequences for business. My officials have been working closely with their counterparts in Whitehall to bring these emergency measures forward that will help businesses through the current crisis.

“This new legislation will ensure Northern Ireland keeps in step with measures being put in place in the rest of the United Kingdom and is good news for the local business community. The new measures provide practical support for companies that may be facing insolvency as a result of the pandemic and will help give them the best chance of recovery.”

The legislative changes will:

Introduce new corporate restructuring tools to the insolvency and restructuring regime to give companies the breathing space and tools required to maximise their chance of survival.
Temporarily suspend parts of insolvency law to support directors to continue trading through the emergency without the threat of personal liability for wrongful trading and to protect companies from creditor action.
Amend Company Law and other legislation to provide companies and other bodies with temporary easements on company filing and annual general meetings.

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