There is a “strong case” for all pupils in Northern Ireland to return to classrooms by 8 March, Education Minister Peter Weir has said.
He said he believed health officials at Stormont had been “over-cautious” in recommending a phased return.
On Monday his party leader First Minister Arlene Foster had called for the executive to revisit its plan.
Mr Weir said he wanted to see “movement across the board” in getting pupils back into classrooms more quickly.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme, the minister said he had advocated a full return in his paper to executive colleagues last week but that health advisers preferred a staged approach, with year groups going back at different times.
The executive is due to meet on Thursday to discuss its pathway-to-recovery blueprint.
“Anything that I put forward has been examined and predates what’s happening in England,” said Mr Weir.
‘Home-schooling is second best’
“Obviously we want to look at what’s happening in other jurisdictions but I’ve indicated that my preferred option was to see everyone returned to school on the 8 March.
“Indications certainly at that stage were given by some of the health advisers that they felt taking that full step was premature, which is why the executive at least moved forward on the initial steps.
“However well parents are providing that home-schooling, however well that work is being done also by schools, in terms of remote learning, it can’t be a subsidiary for face-to-face teaching, it is effectively a second best.
“With some of the emerging evidence we’ve seen this week in Scotland… I think there is a strong case that we need to prioritise the education of our young people and get them back as soon as possible.”
Mr Weir said quick movement was particularly needed on issues around primary schools.
“We’ve got the immediate return of P1 to P3 – I don’t see why there can’t be immediate movement for the rest of primary schools, he said.
“The damage that is being done, both from an educational point of view but from a wider societal point of view in terms of issues around mental health and the long term future of our young people are also critical.
“There’s nowhere that’s entirely risk free but I think [schools] represent a relatively safe place.
Mrs Foster has said she wants the Stormont executive to “revisit” its discussion about the reopening date for schools in Northern Ireland.
She was speaking after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his lockdown exit plan, with 8 March set for the return all schoolchildren in England.
“Unfortunately our health advisors didn’t think that that was the right way forward,” she said.
“I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward but I hope that we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own experience the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom.”
However Sinn Féin’s education spokesperson said “nothing has changed since last Thursday”.
“The [chief medical officer] told us last week that the reopening of schools completely would lead to a rise in the R number by between 0.3 and 0.7,” Pat Sheehan told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.”If the R rate at the minute is sitting around 0.75, even if we only hit that lowest number, it brings us back above one and we’re back in the exact same situation again.”It’s disappointing that Arlene wants to go and make policy on the hoof in interviews on the TV last night.
“The only thing that has changed is that Boris Johnson has decided to make a decision for England.”You would think by now that the DUP would have learned not to hitch their wagon to Boris,” he added.