All students should be back in classrooms by beginning of school year, says Minister

All students should be back in the classroom five days a week when the new school year begins, the education minister has insisted.
All students should be back in classrooms by beginning of school year, says Minister

All students should be back in the classroom five days a week when the new school year begins, the education minister has insisted.

However, a detailed roadmap on how to reopen classrooms safely is unlikely to be issued to schools before they break for summer holidays.

The Department of Education — which previously indicated children may only be able to return to the classroom for one day per week — is now proceeding with its plans to send all children back to school full time, Joe McHugh, the education minister, told the Dáil.

The costs of fully returning to classrooms will be “massive”, he said, adding that discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure on funding are ongoing.

Mr McHugh said as talks continue between teaching unions and school management bodies, guidance on how classrooms will reopen is not expected before the new school year in nine weeks.

Plans for ‘blended learning’ — a mix of learning at home and in school — are still being drawn up by the department in case of further closures in the event of a spike in virus cases on a local or regional level.

The Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh TD with the Minister for Health Simon Harris. (Julien Behal Photography)
The Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh TD with the Minister for Health Simon Harris. (Julien Behal Photography)

Strict social distancing will not be necessary for children with special education needs attending summer programmes next month. Physical distancing will be in place during summer camps for disadvantaged children.

Mr McHugh has been criticised for failing to provide a detailed roadmap on reopening of schools, while insisting there will be a full return of all students in September.

Doubts have also been raised over dispensing with social distancing requirements in classrooms. The teaching unions have stated that a safe return is a priority for all students and staff.

An official Department of Education study previously warned children would only be able to return to classrooms one day a week should the 2m physical distancing rule remain in place.

An official communication regarding social distancing in classrooms is yet to be announced.

However, maintaining physical distancing in all situations “is not possible or appropriate”, Mr McHugh said. “In particular, it may not be practical for children who are quite young and some with special educational needs,” he added.

There will be a focus on handwashing and additional infection controls.

Mr McHugh told the Dáil the department does not believe significant amounts of personal protective equipment will be necessary in schools, although a tender is under way as it will be required in certain cases.

In the Dáil, Garry Gannon of the Social Democrats said that “while schools are still crying out for information on how to reopen” everyone knows the requirements for pubs reopening, down to having to buy a €9 meal.

He said that is not through “osmosis” but because the Government listened to representatives for that sector.

Overcrowding and the requirement for social distancing do not mix, according to Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity-People Before Profit. “It doesn’t matter if you talk about ‘pods’, or ‘bubbles’ because as one teacher put it, we already have ‘pods’ or ‘bubbles’ in schools; we call them ‘classes’,” he said.

Meanwhile, inadequate planning for summer programmes has left many families in the dark, according to Inclusion Ireland. Further guidance around the programmes are expected to be sent to schools today.

School closures have also caused regression in learning for children with intellectual disabilities, according to the organisation’s CEO, Enda Egan.

Supports must also be put in place for children who are medically compromised until it is safe for them to return to school, he said.

Inclusion Ireland will address the Covid-19 special Oireachtas committee today.

Six more deaths linked to Covid-19 were confirmed yesterday, and five new cases of the virus. It brings Ireland’s death toll to 1,726, with 25,396 confirmed cases.

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