Jess Casey: Reopening Irish schools will be anything but child’s play

Ireland can learn from other countries, but our underfunded, overcrowded system will face challenges, writes Jess Casey
Jess Casey: Reopening Irish schools will be anything but child’s play

The Education Minister said he would not like students separated by partitions, like at this school in South Korea. 	Picture: Kim Jun-beom

The Education Minister said he would not like students separated by partitions, like at this school in South Korea. Picture: Kim Jun-beom

Ireland can learn from other countries, but our underfunded, overcrowded system will face challenges, writes Jess Casey

The phrase ‘logistical challenge’ is brought up a lot in the context of getting thousands of young people back into their classrooms. The Government says it is looking at our international neighbours for guidance, but Irish classrooms have their own set of roadblocks.

For example, Irish primary school classes are among the largest, and worst-funded, in Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD).

While a growing body of research seems to indicate that schools aren’t quite the hotbeds of infection that we initially thought they were, public health guidelines will still need to be followed.

As of yet, we don’t know what that guidance is, making it difficult for schools and families to plan for a return.

At this stage, it’s impossible to know what classrooms will look like, and whatever steps taken will have to be balanced alongside the long-term effects of kids stay out of school.

Based on how other countries are managing it, along with our own set-up, here are some changes, and the challenges, we could reasonably see here.

School Buses:

We’re likely to encounter some problems here. The rural bus system was already stretched prior to the Covid-19 shutdown. Physical distancing looks likely to stretch it even further.

For example, a 55-seat commercially-operated bus can now only hold roughly 14 passengers. School transport for children with special educational needs will also be under severe pressure.

Children relying on regular city services might also encounter delays due to physical distancing limitations on these services.

Staggered drop-offs and start times

This seems to feature in most jurisdictions where schools reopened.

Young students might have to be met by a designated member of staff when they arrive at school, at a certain time, and at a predetermined drop-off point.

Secondary school students will most likely have to enter and leave schools at predetermined times as well.

Arrangements could differ depending on the set-up of each school, but these times will most likely have to be staggered in bigger schools to avoid congregation.

It is unlikely that parents will be allowed to enter the school building with their child, as is the case in most countries where schools have reopened.

Health checks:

Health checks for students feature in every country that has reopened schools, but the approaches differ.

In Shanghai, children walk through thermal scanners. In Wuhan, diagnostic testing for Covid-19 is carried out on school grounds.

Northern Germany also has Covid testing on school grounds, with secondary school students in Neustrelitz administering their tests themselves.

After getting their results overnight, students who test negative are given green stickers and allowed to move freely around their schools until four days later, when they test themselves again.

With each test reportedly costing €2,000 here, it’s hard to see something similar replicated here. Common features of health checks include temperature checks, a questionnaire put to parents, and absolutely no attendance of students who have even the slightest cough or sniffle.

Facemasks or coverings:

The advice on personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and teachers varies depending on location.

In France, only older students are advised to wear masks.

In Denmark, children don’t have to wear masks, but that’s because schools there have focused on keeping students physically distanced.

Here, the current advice is to wear a mask in enclosed spaces, such as shops. By that logic, it’s possible they could be recommended for students.

Education Minister Joe McHugh says he would not like to see pupils or teachers wearing PPE.	Picture: Leon Farrell/PA

Education Minister Joe McHugh says he would not like to see pupils or teachers wearing PPE. Picture: Leon Farrell/PA

Education Minister Joe McHugh, has indicated that he wouldn’t like to see a situation where teachers and students have to wear PPE or be separated by partitions.

However, the State Examinations Commission believed that it would have been obligated to provide PPE to supervisors if the Leaving Cert had gone ahead.

If recommended, who sources, supplies, and pays for PPE?

Many schools donated their own limited supplies to healthcare workers at the beginning of the crisis.

Class sizes:

Smaller class sizes would appear to be inevitable.

While we don’t know what the public health advice will be come the new school year, we do know that the minister and the Irish National Teachers Organisation -INTO- have warned that the number of students attending school at any one time could be reduced.

As we are among the countries with the largest class sizes in Europe, some larger primary school classes could be reduced by up to two thirds, and halved in secondary schools. Germany has reduced class sizes, as has France, Norway, and Denmark.

Spance and layouts:

While the 2m physical distancing rule has attracted political heat in recent days, reopening school buildings will still be difficult, even if that distance is reduced to one metre.

Space is a precious commodity in schools, especially if they are based in temporary accommodation or prefabs.

Many classroom layouts will also have to be completely reconfigured, even if class sizes are reduced. If guidelines on physical distancing remain the same, 4 sq m will be needed per student.

This allows a maximum of 10 students in one average-sized classroom.

The school week:

Given the likelihood of smaller class sizes, and limitations due to space, we could see a change in the days students attend lessons in the school itself.

This could mean a two- or three-day week. Half days, where some students are taught in the morning, and the rest in the afternoon, are not favoured by school principals.

According to the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN), a ‘half-day’ schedule would raise not only significant issues around deep-cleaning, but also around the coordination of drop-offs and collection times.

Systems for walking around school:

Demarcation directing students’ journeys around the school, down corridors to classrooms, up and down stairways, to bathrooms, and exits and entry-ways will most likely become a common feature.

No congregation:

Corridors, classrooms, and locker rooms will most likely need to be kept clear of crowds.

This could mean no classroom changes for larger schools, or staggered class times.

Limited face-to-face interaction with students in different classes:

In Denmark, children are kept in small groups, with as little contact with other students outside of this as possible.

Groups are kept to about a dozen students per teacher and the group arrives at school, eats their lunch together, and has their own zones in the playground. But primary and secondary students in Denmark typically share the same school.

As the older students haven’t returned yet, they’ve more space.

A similar approach has been floated here when it comes to the creches, given the consensus that it’s impossible to get younger children to adhere to physical distancing.

Students with special educational needs:

Maintaining physical distancing will be difficult for students who rely on special needs assistants for their care needs.

As cited by the IPPN: “It is not possible to keep social distancing when helping with toileting and feeding, delivering physio programmes, hoisting, changing position/moving, using playground equipment, alighting from/getting on buses and so on.”

'Blended learning':

Mr McHugh has said it’s likely that schools will be using ‘blended learning’ — a mix of lessons in class and lessons at home — when students are back in the classroom.

Children eating lunch in segregated positions at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester, England. When Irish schools reopen, it is likely that children will be kept in small groups and encouraged not to congregate with students from other classes.	Picture: Jacob King/PA

Children eating lunch in segregated positions at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester, England. When Irish schools reopen, it is likely that children will be kept in small groups and encouraged not to congregate with students from other classes. Picture: Jacob King/PA

It’s just not clear yet how it will work in an Irish context.

No sharing:

Again, in most jurisdictions where schools have reopened, sharing in a classroom is limited, or forbidden, to avoid any cross-contamination.

This could mean no sharing of pens, books, art supplies, toys, or technology such as iPads or tablets.

The curriculum:

What lesson plans do teachers focus on if they are teaching a class through a rota of blended learning?

Teachers and principals have called for a hold on any new initiatives this year.

Flexible learning and giving teachers the autonomy to move their lessons away from the curriculum to a certain degree might take the pressure off students and teachers alike.

A focus on mental health:

Growing research suggests that children are at risk of lasting psychological distress due to the lockdown. Not every student will be affected in the same way, but the current emotional and psychological supports will need to be bolstered.

Hygiene and deep cleaning:

A vigorous hand-washing regime could be a problem when some schools do not even have warm water.

It’s likely that they will need hand sanitisers upon entry and exit, as well as signs and posters to remind students to keep up their hygiene.

Schools may have to have their cleaning staff on-site every day to deep-clean facilities.

Cost:

The elephant in the room. A lot of these measures will cost money, but, the Government has not yet approved any additional funding for schools.

Insurance:

Last year, several special schools were threatened with closure after they saw their insurance costs sky-rocket.

The IPPN has asked the Department of Education to reach an agreement with providers to cover schools’ risks in relation to Covid-19.

One of the reasons why the scheme to provide temporary childcare to healthcare workers failed was due to a lack of insurance cover.

Fears:

When schools re-opened in other countries, not every child returned straight away.

Communication will be crucial.

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