Education Minister Norma Foley is “confident” that 1,000 extra teachers can be hired and major building works completed on schools ahead of the new term in a just a few weeks.
Outlining an ambitious €375m plan for reopening 4,000 schools, the government set out a roadmap for Covid-19 outbreaks, the substitution of teachers, and social distancing plans for classes.
The vetting of new staff and supervisors will also be fast-tracked, with individuals assessed in under a week.
Unions gave a positive welcome for the package, which Taoiseach Micheal Martin declared was “the most comprehensive” reopening plan for any sector so far.
However, Ms Foley and her department have just weeks to source, train, vet, and arrange the hiring of over 1,000 extra post-primary teachers.
Some €75m in adaptation works to physically prepare schools and related buildings must also be completed by the beginning of the new term.
Ms Foley pledged that school doors would open on time at the end of August.
“I do not envisage that there will be any delays,” she said, outlining the package after it was agreed by the Cabinet.
“I know well the calibre of the teachers and the staff teams in the schools across the country.
But the commitment leaves a very tight deadline so schools can safely reopen.
Chief among these are the hiring of an extra 1,080 teaching posts at post-primary level, including 120 guidance posts to support student wellbeing.
There will be an initial allocation of over 600 posts, while the remainder will be used to support schools. experiencing difficulties reopening fully and following physical distancing and class sizes.
There will be no requirement for younger children to social distance. Above second class, there will be a 'bubble' system, with children in pods a metre between each one.
While facemasks will not be essential for students and teachers, a one-metre distance between post-primary students may require a reconfiguring of some schools.
There will also be stepped-up cleaning regimes, while lunch breaks and school start times may be staggered.
“There is no zero-risk scenario but we can dramatically limit the risk of the virus through our schools,” said Mr Martin.
School principals at primary level will get a minimum of one release day per week to deal with the administrative burden of coping with the pandemic.
A key part of the plan will also see €75m in capital funds for schools to adapt their buildings and classrooms for reopening, including uplifts for schools with special education needs pupils. Ms Foley said these works could be done in time.
In suspect infections cases, children would be isolated, collected from school and tested and, if needs be, a full class could be sent home to self-isolate.
There would also be supports for remote learning, the Government said.
Opposition parties said schools were in a race against the clock to reopen.
Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon queried whether there would be enough substitute teachers in the event of a second Covid-19 wave.
While trade unions welcomed the package, there are some calls for flexibility around reopening, particularly for services in special schools and settings.
Labour's Aodhan Ó Ríordáin said the plan came “very late in the day with a hard deadline approaching”.