Time is running out. Schools are due to reopen in a few short weeks yet parents, teachers and, most importantly, pupils have no idea what the school day will look like.
In the absence of government guidelines, schools around the country are reportedly looking at ways to tailor their own resources so that they can open their doors in late August/early September.
Some schools with extra space, such as gym halls, are considering using them to set up socially distanced classrooms. Those with less space are planning to install Perspex screens around teachers’ desks. Others still are examining ways to take advantage of school video technology to provide home lessons if a student contracts the coronavirus.
There is talk of keeping children in pods in class and at break, staggering hours and introducing electronic homework so that books can remain in schools. In France, some children will wear masks. In Germany, rotas mean students will go to school one week but watch on video link the next.
Teachers here and abroad are showing the kind of imagination, innovation and resourcefulness that we have yet to see from the Department of Education.
Yesterday, acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said we were “absolutely on track for children to go back to school in September”. That makes it even more urgent to have a plan rather than an aspiration. As Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said in the Dáil, “an aspiration will not cut the mustard”.
The department has promised to announce detailed guidelines at the end of the month but that leaves little time to implement a long list of measures that includes everything from staff training, infection control and the need for hand sanitiser and PPE.
It would help if Education Minister Norma Foley, or her department, issued a list of possible classroom layout models so that teachers can, at least, plan ahead. The delay is not only difficult for schools and teachers but for parents and, most importantly, children.
More than a quarter of parents feel their children’s education suffered because of the lockdown, according to a recent study by academics at Trinity College Dublin. The greater challenge, perhaps, is the effect of missing out on the social interaction at school. Three-quarters of parents were “very” or “extremely” worried about that, another survey reported.
The effect on the parents themselves must also come into the picture. They are already feeling the strain of months of juggling home-working and home-schooling. They need to know what happens next.
The challenges are enormous. Nobody is disputing that; it will be a tightrope walk between keeping pupils and teachers safe and getting them back into the classroom. But they can’t wait any longer.
Simon Harris, minister for higher and further education, issued guidelines for a gradual return to on-site activity at third level on Wednesday, even though those institutions have a later starting date than schools.
If Mr Harris can issue guidelines, why can’t Minister Foley do so too?
The minister was criticised for delaying the Leaving Cert results until September 7. While she is to be admired for guaranteeing the integrity of those results, she must balance her concerns about getting the back-to-school plan right against the urgent need to allay the real fears of teachers, parents and pupils.