Jess Casey: Leaving Cert measures inform back-to-school considerations

With the Leaving Cert cancelled, attention now turns to the problems associated with schools reopening in September, says Jess Casey

Jess Casey: Leaving Cert measures inform back-to-school considerations
Covid Signage in Cherrywood,Ballybrack Co Dublin...
Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

As the dust begins to settle following the cancellation of the Leaving Cert exams, attention now turns to planning how schools will be ready to reopen safely in the new school year.

Solving the immediate problems associated with the State Exams was the first focus, not just for the Department of Education but also for the teaching unions, parents, students and other groups.

In the coming weeks, talks will begin on the ins and outs of this process. Let's look at some of the obstacles that might pose challenging, given what we know would have been issues with the Leaving Cert exams, if they had gone ahead. 

Students might be given a planned route into school, including detailed instructions mapping their journeys into the classrooms: Notably the most jarring advice from the State Examinations Commission (SEC) on the exams was around the ‘military precision’ that would have been required in order to avoid congregation on the way in and out of school.

This included precise arrangements for each school based on its individual set-up. It also included queuing systems and movement patterns worked out in advance, and two-metre distances marked out in the yard, or around the school perimeter. Students sitting their exams would have been required to know in advance where they would have to line up to enter school, what door to use to enter and leave the building, an exact route to get to their desk, and where to go as they left. 

Meanwhile, students would also have to remain 6.5 feet apart before, during and after exams from the time they left home in the morning to when they returned. Social distancing looks like it's here to stay for the foreseeable future so it is likely similar arrangements will have to be considered when schools reopen. 

The amount of physical space that will be necessary for social distancing: Space, or the lack thereof, will likely be the biggest obstacle for schools to overcome as part of the new normal. With Ireland’s classrooms among the most crowded in the EU, it will be near impossible to seat most classes together.  When it came to the Leaving Cert, the SEC advice was to seat just 10 students to a classroom, and 40 to a PE hall. Students would have also had to sit in the same seats for the duration of the exams. The average class size in Ireland is 25 students. If the exams had gone ahead, students would have also had to sit in the same seats for the duration for health and safety purposes. Forgoing classroom changes mightn’t pose too much of a problem for primary schools but it could for secondary students, who traditionally change classrooms roughly every 40 minutes. One easy solution to this would be for teachers to move to each classroom while students stay put, with several classrooms to be assigned with designated seating for choice subjects. However, many secondary schools will find it difficult to conjure up this additional space.

Jess Casey: Leaving Cert measures inform back-to-school considerations

The answer to spacing students out could very well lie in the use of prefabs, but there will be a cost associated with all this.  One solution to the space conundrum would be teaching students in split shifts. However, this then leads to the question of what happens to the curriculum, and how lessons should be arranged. 

Health and Safety: The SEC also recommended that there should be “absolutely” no attendance by anyone at during the exams, students or school staff, who were ill, showing any symptoms of the virus, who were self-isolating, or quarantining, or who is living with a family member who is or has been exposed to the virus. 

If similar advice is issued to returning schools, schools may find it tricky to address staff shortages. The SEC also recommended a rigorous cleaning routine; As the evidence suggests Covid-19 may remain on different surfaces for hours, or even days, regular routine sanitising and cleaning would have been required throughout the Leaving Cert exams. The SEC believed it would also have had a duty of care to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hand sanitiser, antiseptic wipes, masks and gloves. School authorities would have had to put in place ready access to hand-washing facilities. School authorities would also have been expected to put in place other measures to protect staff and students, possibly a need for masks or visors, and gloves. Students could have been required to wear a mask, and receive a health check on the way in and out of the exam centres. 

Given the widely known issues around the difficulties in sourcing PPE, schools may find it hard to get a hold of such equipment if public health advice deems it necessary when schools reopen.

There is nothing to say that the same issues identified by the SEC will apply to reopening schools. Hopefully, the public health restrictions will be lifted even further by the autumn. But it's hard to see how some of these same challenges won’t apply then. For now, there's still time to consider these issues, according to David Geary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO): "One solution mightn't fit every school but we have a bit of time now to build on the work of the Leaving Cert advisory group and work through any issues that might arise." 

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