STORMONT has passed a motion calling for the Education Minister to “urgently develop a plan” to keep schools safely open.

MLAs were recalled to the Assembly today to discuss an emergency motion. The motion by Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan calls on the Minister to develop a plan to install air monitoring and filtration devices in all classrooms, and to address school staffing pressures.

Opening the Assembly debate, Mr Sheehan said he accepted there “is no silver bullet or panacea” to tackle the burden felt by schools, and instead called for a “combination of measures” to do so. 

He said there were “significant number” of teachers who could be redeployed to “pupil facing roles to relieve the stress on our schools”, adding that final year teaching students could be deployed to classrooms.

The West Belfast MLA insisted on the need for air filtration systems in classrooms. He stated that the Education Minister has “responsibility to cost these devices” and to submit a funding bid to the Finance Minister.

“Two years into this pandemic she has no plan, she has made no proposals, she has brought nothing to the Executive, and she has not asked for money for air filtration systems – that’s her responsibility as Education Minister and she has failed this basic test, “ he stated.

Turning to the issue of exams, he called for “immediate discussions” between the Department, CCEA and unions to implement contingency plans for exams.

DUP MLA Robin Newton said that scientific evidence suggested that Covid-19 infections amongst school pupils are likely to be “mild”, adding that “we do have to live with this virus".

Quoting DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson, he described the Assembly recall as a “political stunt”. He accused Sinn Féin of “hypocrisy” on the issue of funding for air filtration systems in classrooms.

“The Sinn Féin Finance Minister has proposed a two per cent cut to the Education budget for 2022 to ’25, which we in the DUP opposed,” he said.

The East Belfast MLA said the cut would mean a yearly funding shortfall of around £84million in funding needed to continue existing education programmes. 

“A Sinn Féin Minister proposing cutting the Education budget while the entire Sinn Féin Assembly group calls for the Education Minister to spend massive amounts of money in additional capital which she does not have – what political dishonesty, duplicity and insincerity,” he said.

Mr Newton branded Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance Party, which signed the motion, a “pan-nationalist front”. He said parties had “sought to criticise the minister” for “political advantage”.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan began by highlighting the “intolerable pressures” facing schools, and expressed disappointment about Mr Newton’s comments.

“Just for the member's record, Mr Speaker, all children in Northern Ireland are affected, all teachers, all schools – it doesn’t matter what walk of life. So don’t try to turn something as fundamental as children’s education into a sectarian argument or bun fight, because this is not what this is. This is about children’s education and protecting them.”

The UUP’s Robbie Butler MLA thanked Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan for the opportunity to “reinforce the repeated calls” for a “focused and deliberate strategy to improve air quality and ventilation and schools”.

“Some may have begun to believe that we are now at a stage where we can let our guard down and they would be wrong,” he said.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle warned against comments describing Covid-19 as a “mild disease”, stating the virus “continues to cause long-term sickness, hospitalisation and death.”

“Investment in clean air could be vitally important to limiting the impact of Covid-19,” he added.

TUV Leader Jim Allister TUV described the Assembly recall and motion as “a stunt”, noting that the three parties who backed the motion – Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance – “are in the Executive”.

“This is the executive which they are part that they are now tearing apart when it comes to one of those departments,” he said.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the Education Minister had “utterly failed” to ensure classroom ventilation, which would “reduce transmission of the virus”.

“Worse, there is no law at all to set out a minimum standard for clean air in schools,” he stated. 

"If this wasn’t bad enough, Mr Speaker, the Minister has returned £40million to the Finance Minister of money which should have been invested to protect pupils and staff in schools.”

Responding to the debate, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “Regrettably, today’s motion represents quick fixes, easy headlines, and the worst form of politics.”

She said pupils safety is a “top priority” urging MLAs not to “play politics” in dealing with the pandemic. 

She insisted there is a “comprehensive plan” to address the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Her Covid Guidance Framework, she said, is a “ framework for living with Covid”, which is guided by the Department of Health and Public Health Agency. 

The DUP MLA said recommended measures “mirror” those in wider society including hand washing, good ventilation, asymptomatic testing, use of face coverings, and CO2 monitors in schools. 

She said there have been “no recommendations” from the Department of Health for further restrictions or mitigations. 

On the issue of air filtration systems, she insisted there is “nothing more effective than opening windows and doors”.

She estimated that it would cost around £40million to install the devices across some 20,000 classrooms in the North.

“If the evidence supports such investment I will have no hesitation bidding for such funds to the Executive and the Minister of Finance,” she told the Assembly. “However, I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money – we must follow the science. “

Ms McIlveen said there is no “ready and easy solution” to staff shortages, adding that here department is monitoring staffing levels closely.

On exams, she said her department has been working closely with CCEA, which will ensure that “grading in 2022 takes account of disruption experienced by learners and that they are not disadvantaged due to the pandemic”.

“Should the public health situation change and public examinations have to be cancelled I’ve agreed contingencies for alternative awarding arrangements,” she stated.

The motion was passed following an oral vote.