The full return to school for thousands of children and young people hinges on whether or not it will be safe to relax, or remove, social distancing in classrooms, according to the official advice compiled by the Department of Education.
More than three months since schools first shut their doors, the advice has laid bare the stark consequences social distancing will have on Irish classrooms. School students will be able to attend school for just one day a week should the 2m rule remain in place when schools reopen their doors in the new school year.
Even if this is relaxed to 1, the majority of students will still only be able to attend school for two-and-a-half days per week. This will have a “detrimental” effect on education, the report notes.
The risk of students’ regression and the damage caused by extended school closures will have to be considered, Education Minister Joe McHugh said yesterday.
However, unions have expressed surprise at what has been described as the apparent side-stepping of public health advice.
Mr McHugh said he does not want to see children learning at home for the majority of the week. “If we only bring back 10%-20% of students in August, we could end up doing more damage in terms of regression,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s a runner.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government is working on a “bespoke” solution for schools that will see all children return.
The department’s ‘optimal’ model for reopening schools sees little material changes within a classroom, but would strongly focus on hand hygiene, sanitation, and a clear policy on staying at home for sick students.
It is understood that officials within the Department of Health are unlikely to want different rules on social distancing in schools compared to those for the wider population.
Concerns have also been raised by teaching unions.
John MacGabhann of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said: “The document seems to side-step public health advice as if it can somehow be set aside for particular workplaces.”
The TUI wishes to see a full return to classrooms, but not at the risk to students’ or staff’s health, he said.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) is also demanding clear support for schools to ensure a safe environment, according to INTO general secretary John Boyle. Priority must be given to the safety and wellbeing of staff, pupils, and parents, he added.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it would be very concerned if a different approach to physical distancing is introduced in schools compared to the wider public. Any deviation from the public health advice is “unacceptable”, it stated.
Talks on reopening schools will continue in the coming weeks.
Opposition parties were also quick to criticise the lack of guidance provided to schools yesterday.
Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire described the preparation for reopening schools as a “fiasco”, adding that schools and parents have been left at a loss.
Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the announcement has caused more confusion and chaos for families. Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne said he believes there is scope for the National Public Health Emergency Team to examine the advice from the World Health Organisation around social distancing, “which we know is at odds with our guidelines”.
Separately, concerns have also been raised by Fórsa about a lack of clear procedures around plans to provide summer programmes to children with special educational needs.
Yesterday, the Department of Health was notified of a further three deaths linked with Covid-19. It brings the total number of Covid-related deaths to 1,705.
A further 13 new cases of the virus were also confirmed yesterday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases here to 25,250.