Joe McHugh: Schools may not return in September

Parents were thrown into further confusion yesterday after the Minister for Education said students would not be returning to school in September as normal.
Joe McHugh: Schools may not return in September
Education Minister Joe McHugh: "We have to balance all the risks, we cannot put the education of children on hold.” Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

- With additional reporting from Paul Hosford and Juno McEnroe

Parents were thrown into further confusion yesterday after the Minister for Education said students would not be returning to school in September as normal.

“It is very hard to see all students back in September, even with a one-metre rule,” said Joe McHugh.

“While blended learning, a mix of learning in a classroom and online at home, looks set to become a mainstay when school buildings reopen, the Department of Education doesn’t know yet what classrooms will look like.

“We are waiting to see what sort of blended education system we are going to have.”

The Department of Education is in “no rush” and will not bring a report to Cabinet today on how to reopen schools, and is still in consultation with principals and other stakeholders on how to reopen safely.

“We have to balance all the risks,” Mr McHugh said. “We cannot put the education of children on hold.”

A roadmap for schools for how to plan their return will not be completed for another two weeks. The department is also looking at how other countries reopened their schools, including Germany, Denmark, and Greece.

The two-metre social distancing rule, cited as an issue for schools, is also set to be debated by ministers after the reduction of the limit was raised by a number of Cabinet insiders at last week’s meeting, and has been further bolstered by opposition TDs calling for the issue to be examined, alongside consistent pressure from industry bodies.

WHO guidelines state that one metre social distancing is safe; however, chief medical officer Tony Holohan has signalled no plans to advise a reduction here.

It comes as a further nine people with Covid-19 have died, bringing the total of coronavirus related deaths here to 1,639, while 46 new confirmed cases means 24,841 cases of Covid-19 in Ireland so far.

A mortality paper discussed by NPHET yesterday states that mortality in Ireland has been within the lower range compared with other health systems across Europe.

NPHET has agreed in principle to include in the case definition the sudden loss of smell and loss of taste, subject to updated guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which is expected to be published today.

The Cabinet is also set to sign off on a “workaround” to address the anomaly that excludes women returning to work after maternity leave from the temporary wage subsidy scheme. The irregularity sees women who are returning from unpaid maternity leave and were not on their company’s payroll in January and February unable to access the subsidy.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe confirmed that a measure to clear up the anomaly would be brought to Cabinet today.

“It was absolutely my intention to ensure that all were treated equally in front of the wage subsidy scheme,” he said.

It comes as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission wrote to the minister noting that the flaw is contrary to the State’s obligations under EU law.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed a private hospital in Limerick which the Minister for Health said is 30% full in fact has no inpatients whatsoever.

The Bon Secours Limerick, one of the 19 private hospitals taken over by the HSE at the end of March in order to extend the public health system’s capacity in the face of Covid-19, has had no inpatients (overnight stays) since that deal was signed.

The hospital, which has a bed capacity of 50, had just one inpatient discharged between March 30 and May 25, the Department of Health said.

On Wednesday, Simon Harris told the Dáil “updated figures I have today show 30% of inpatient beds now being used in the Bon Secours Hospital Limerick”.

However, no further inpatients have been received in the intervening days, according to sources at the hospital.

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