In a letter sent to principals, the minister said: “The 1m guidance between children is to be followed as far as possible within the confines of the physical capacity of each classroom and the 2m rule for staff adhered to fully.”
Scotland ‘looking carefully’ at NI decision
Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish Government is looking carefully at the decision in Northern Ireland to reduce physical distancing in schools.
At her daily briefing on Friday, Mrs Sturgeon said the advice she had been given was that 2m was the appropriate distance between people to inhibit the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Gault, who is principal of Maghaberry Primary School, said he had measured his own classrooms and could manage 15 pupils rather than the usual 30.
“At the moment it looks likely, if nothing changes, that I’ll be able to welcome back half of my school cohort,” he told BBC News NI’s Good Morning Ulster.
On Friday, Mr Weir told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback “the direct threat to young people is extremely low” from Covid-19 and their continued absence from school is “damaging”.
“Obviously everything has got to be as healthy and as public health orientated as possible, but there’s also got to be other considerations and balances put into place as well,” he said.
Mr Gault said “great progress” had been made in recent days and trade unions have worked with the Department of Education to create “workable solutions” on how to manage school numbers safely.
However, in response to a suggestion by the first minister that schools should “find extra space”, such as assembly and dining halls, as well as “facilities beside the schools”, Mr Gault added the comments “stopped me from sleeping last night”.
“I wondered where I was going to be finding the teachers from to take a class of children into another building on up the road.
“There are so many implications to that,” he explained.
“It’s really important that our communities don’t listen to yesterday’s comments and think that children will be coming back to school as normal in September.
“Schools want our children to be back full-time, it’s what we crave, but that’s not going to happen unless something very drastic changes.”
By Robbie Meredith, BBC News NI Education Correspondent
There is a hope that as many children can go back to as many schools as possible, as often as they can, come September.
We’re not at the stage though of most schools being able to take pupils back full-time, I think everyone would admit that, most principals certainly.
Who knows where we might be in mid-August.
I understand that in the guidance that comes out today there will be that aspiration to get all children back to school full-time, but that part-time element has been flagged up.
The fact that primary school children will probably only be in school around two days or half of a week, that most post-primary children will be in one week in every two, that guidance is still in there, it hasn’t disappeared.
Julie Thomas, principal of Clandeboye Primary School in Bangor, told Good Morning Ulster the reduction of social distancing guidelines has welcomed, however “has not given us any more hope that we will be able to bring the entire school community back into our building”.
“It’s very important that at this point we do not overpromise the parents what we are going to be able to deliver once we enter the new academic year.”
Methodist College Belfast Principal Scott Naismith said: “The minister has been overly optimistic in his assessment that this will enable many schools to accommodate all pupils each day.”
He said “favourable pupil-staff ratios and accommodation” means Methody’s preparatory schools can “get all the pupils back all the time from August”, however, complexities in the senior school means “at best we will get half the school accommodated safely in line with the new rules”.
Mr Weir also told Talkback that guidance would be issued to schools on Friday afternoon, but acknowledged further work is needed on travel arrangements for pupils getting to school, particularly on public transport.
“Unless there’s better solutions that are found which enable much larger numbers of people to be on transport, I think there’s no doubt that will be a level of difficulty.
“We don’t have a solution entirely at this stage,” he added.