Parish halls, community centres, and spare rooms to be used to ensure pupils remain 1m apart

Parish halls, community centres, and spare rooms to be used to ensure pupils remain 1m apart

Education minister Norma Foley’s plan is to be approved by Cabinet today. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Parish halls, community centres, and spare rooms in secondary schools are to be used to ensure pupils remain 1m apart as part of today’s €200m plan to get classrooms back open.

Education minister Norma Foley’s plan, to be approved by Cabinet today, will see smaller second-level classes “stripped out” of excess furniture and materials to ensure the proper social distancing is maintained when schools reopen on August 31, according to senior Government sources.

Ms Foley will table her first substantial memo to Cabinet which will see hundreds of additional teachers “brought back into the system", despite concerns expressed by trade union leaders.

The Irish Examiner can reveal that under the plan:

  • Children below third class will not need to maintain social distancing;
  • All other primary school children will sit in pod bubbles;
  • Second-level students will have to stay 1m apart;
  • Gyms, libraries, music rooms and science rooms — as well as halls in nearby community buildings — will be used to ensure all students can return;
  • The plan will also include a ring-fenced €30m package to help special needs students safely return to school at the same time;
  • Ensuring there is full cover for special needs assistants, funding for hundreds more teachers, and sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) will be part of the plan;
  • Teaching principals will get an extra day’s administrative leave to deal with Covid-19-related issues;
  • The €200m includes €125m of Covid-19-related support funding and €75m in minor works funding announced in the July stimulus package;
  • A substantial provision for substitute teachers to grant teaching principals “significant administrative leave” to ensure schools are Covid-19-ready;
  • An escalation of school cleaning practices to minimise the spread of the virus.

Government sources are confident there are enough part-time teachers, or teachers on career breaks who can be enticed back into work in order to make this plan work.

A procurement process is under way to allow schools to receive any additional equipment or cleaning products needed to comply with Covid-19 standards.

Leo Varadkar said the memorandum going before the Cabinet today is “a very good plan.”

The Tánaiste did accept that there will be some clusters emerging here in the wake of schools re-opening.

“This is a virus that's in the community," he said. 

"There can be outbreaks and clusters anywhere — mostly happening in homes by the way, and private settings, and not in workplaces — but that doesn't mean that we can't proceed safely.”

“We have a memo coming to Cabinet, which sets out the plan to reopen our schools, and it's a very good plan,” he said.

I can't speak for the unions, but I can say that the Government's plan is ready. It involves really big investment in changes to schools and school buildings. It involves extra teachers, it involves cleaning regimes, and it involves all sorts of practices and procedures that may occur if there is a case of coronavirus in schools.

He said it also includes special arrangements for teachers who have a chronic illness.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Josepha Madigan, the Minister of State with responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion, said: "We want to see a full re-opening of schools in the autumn for all students and teachers. In terms of cleaning, staffing, PPE, and additional non-teaching support, schools must be fully supported in order to make this happen,” she said.

However, teaching unions signalled a phased introduction into the new school year may be needed in order to ensure the safety of pupils and their members.

ASTI president Deirdre McDonald said that they had made a list of requests to ensure teachers and students return to school safely.

She said it will be "a gigantic challenge" to schools, and that they cannot be rushed into this. 

"If we have to take another few days to make sure we are going into a safe environment, that must be, rather than pile them in on day one," she said.

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