Schools in Northern Ireland reopened on Monday for the first time since March, as government scientists and teachers’ unions clashed over the safety of the decision in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael McBride, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, said that it was safe for children to return to school.

He was backed by Northern Irish Education Minister Peter Weir, who said: “Schools are not unsafe places for children and they are not unsafe places for teachers either.

“Very, very few, if any, children will come to harm as a result of attending school, but there is evidence of the long-term harm to children’s education, life opportunities, mental health and well-being from not attending school.

“There is clear unequivocal evidence that children are less likely to catch COVID-19, where they do most of them will have mild to moderate symptoms and in most cases they will make a very full recovery.

“There is a very, very low – indeed an incredibly low incidence – of serious disease within children and they are also less likely to transmit the virus.”

Unions disagree, saying they have not been given enough time to fully implement the new guidelines issued by the Northern Irish government earlier this month.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the largest teaching union in Northern Ireland, said the reopening could lead to a second wave of coronavirus infections by Halloween.

The Northern Irish government gave schools £42 million ($54.9 million) to fund the restarting of schools, with the money to be used for substitute teachers and personal protective equipment among other related needs.

“I fully recognise the stresses felt by teachers, parents and pupils due to the ongoing disruption and uncertainty regarding the future,” Weir said.

“My key priority has always been to ensure all of our children and young people return to school on a full-time basis, as soon as it is safe to do so.”

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