Some leading grammar schools have abandoned plans for a test to select pupils amid another pandemic stand-off between Northern Ireland’s political leaders.
There were tense scenes as Stormont ministers failed to reach agreement over academic selection on Friday ahead of a planned transfer exam next month.
Several schools have already cancelled the test in a bid to alleviate children’s anxiety over “constantly shifting” arrangements resulting from the Covid-19 crisis and spiralling infection rates.
State-run GCSE, AS and A-level exams have already been cancelled but the assessment for youngsters aged 10 or 11 transiting from primary school is operated by private organisations.
Belfast Royal Academy grammar is the oldest school in the city and enjoys a reputation for academic excellence.
It said: “We realise that our decision will be a relief for some but a disappointment for others, and this is not the outcome that any of us would have wished or planned for.
“However, given the stress which has been experienced by children and parents as a result of the constantly shifting arrangements resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic to date, we hope that the publication of our decision will alleviate any further anxiety at this time.”
Northern Ireland has stiffened coronavirus restrictions and police are enforcing stay at home orders except for work, food shopping and exercise in a bid to drive down soaring numbers of cases.
The country is to require incoming travellers to undertake pre-departure testing for Covid-19, health minister Robin Swann said on Friday.
Schoolchildren’s teaching has been badly disrupted since the pandemic began in March.
Powersharing partners Sinn Fein and the DUP hold fundamental differences over whether the transfer test should be scrapped for good.
The republican party’s communities minister Deirdre Hargey said: “This is leading to untold disruption for families and particularly for the young people involved.
“We are in the middle of a health crisis.
“We’re seeing a huge pressure on inpatients, on beds being made available.
“So I am calling on AQE (test organising body), and calling on all of those that haven’t taken the decision yet, to show that leadership, to show compassion in the year that we’re in.”
Meanwhile, 20 more people have died with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.
Another 1,500 tested positive, the Department of Health said.
More than 200 people died with Covid-19 over the Christmas period, Stormont’s Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency added.
The health service is under severe pressure, with hospitals at full capacity and cancer surgery among operations cancelled in Belfast.
At noon on Friday, 125 patients were in emergency departments awaiting admission to a hospital bed, the NHS said.
A total of 314 were waiting in emergency departments.
Streets in the centre of Belfast were deserted on Friday amid the lockdown.
Those found to have breached the rules can be issued with a £200 fixed-penalty notice or a fine of up to £5,000 if the case goes to court.
Indoor and outdoor gatherings have been reduced from 15 people to six from only two households.
Tighter rules around movement will remain in place until February 6 but will be reviewed later this month.
Stormont ministers have ordered most mainstream schools to remain closed to most pupils after Christmas.
Gatherings for religious worship have been halted.