Government pledges €200m to reopen schools in August

Government pledges €200m to reopen schools in August

Taoiseach Micheál Martin with education minister Norma Foley briefing on plans to reopen the schools in August. Picture: Julien Behal Photography.

The Government will on Monday approve a "very significant" package worth €200m to allow a full-time reopening of every school in the country next month, it can be revealed.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has personally intervened to ensure delivery of what has been described as his Government’s “top priority” in getting all 1m school children and 100,000 school staff back in classrooms at the end of August.

Amid loud and persistent concerns expressed by some teaching unions last night, education minister Norma Foley is to present a “comprehensive” memorandum to her ministerial colleagues to “allow all children back on campus and all teachers back on campus”.

The news was confirmed as the Government sought to deflect criticism from Opposition TDs over the awarding of €16,000 allowances to a third 'super junior' minister at a time of recession.

The Irish Examiner understands:

  • The €200m contains €125m of Covid-related support funding and €75m in minor works funding announced in the July stimulus on Thursday;
  • The plan will fully be in accordance with the public health advice, with stricter social-distancing requirements for older children;
  • It will include a substantial provision for substitute teachers to grant principals “significant administrative leave” to ensure schools are Covid-ready;
  • Special provisions will be made for students and teachers with immune-system deficiencies;
  • There will be a major escalation of school cleaning practices;
  • Students with special needs will each get €74 to help facilitate their return to school;
  • Investment to ensure the complex school transport system can cope in a Covid environment will also be included in the plan.

Amid mounting concern among parents, the Taoiseach has staked his credibility and that of his Government on ensuring that children can return to school as normal next month.

Mr Martin said the major financial package will allow schools fully reopen in a “robust and resilient way”.

“The objective is that schools reopen fully and keep everyone safe,” said Mr Martin. 

"The full plans will be outlined on Monday. 

"They are, by nature, comprehensive. It’s a holistic plan, involving everyone in the school community, ranging from curriculum to teacher supply and supports, right across the board.” 

The Taoiseach said he wanted to give confidence and hope to parents that extensive planning had gone into the reopening plans.

“We want this to be for the long haul,” he said. “I’m very confident we’re in a good position, thanks to the strong partnership approach, [to reopen] towards the end of August.”

Schools have been shut since March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Foley said the top priority in getting everyone back to school is to “keep everyone safe”.

"The full and safe reopening of schools is my number-one objective as education minister,” she said. "Clarity takes time. 

I am confident that what I take to Cabinet will be solution-focused, it will be a roadmap that everyone can clearly identify with. There is no point in bringing anything that is not completed. It's been a long process of work.

Under the latest guidelines, 1m distancing will be required for pupils from Third Class up. Social distancing will not be necessary among very young children in classrooms. 

All secondary school students and teachers will be required to socially distance in class — this means 1m spacings between all desks at a minimum.

Despite confirmation of the plan, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) dismissed the €42m allocation for post-primary schools in the stimulus package as inadequate.

ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie described the additional monies provided to schools in the July stimulus as just "the tip of the iceberg", adding that preparing for schools to reopen safely would be a "mammoth" task. 

Mr Christie warned that if schools were to reopen, all public health advice must be implemented "in full and at all times" to ensure the safety of everyone in school communities.

"It won't be a 'just make-do so and take our chances' approach," he said.

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