Warning from principals’ leader as talks due on return to classes
Schools and school buses are not designed for social distancing, a principals' leader said as a national conversation gets under way over when it will be safe for teachers and pupils to return to classrooms.
Even a partial reopening has raised concerns among teachers, principals and others about how it can be achieved while observing public health-led physical distancing rules expected to be in place for some time.
While there is no suggestion that schools will open their doors immediately after the current lockdown, which extends until May 5, Health Minister Simon Harris kicked off the debate at the weekend, floating the idea of a "one day a week" reopening.
Education Minister Joe McHugh, who has declared schools closed "until further notice" on public health grounds, has not got involved in speculation.
Post-primary schools are due to close at the end of May, which doesn't leave a lot of time for a meaningful return, but the primary school year runs until the end of June.
In a country with the biggest primary classes in the EU, reopening schools, while observing society's new physical distancing rules, won't be easy.
Overcrowded classrooms are a feature of primary schools, with an average class size of 24, and almost 350,000 4-12 year olds in classes of 25 or more, more than 100,000 in classes of 30 or more, and up to 300 in classes of 40 or more.
The figures do not crunch in the same way at post-primary, because of the range of subjects and different levels of uptake.
But it is estimated that in Junior Cycle core subjects, such as English, at least half of classes have 25-plus students.
Many post-primary schools are already struggling to cope with increasing enrolments and in the current situation, any consideration being given to reopening schools must add in a requirement to keep students two metres apart.
Suggestions of staggering classes and splitting pupils between mornings and afternoons, or different days, may control numbers, but raises questions about who deep cleans classrooms and other areas in between.
Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), said the health implications of any reopening would have to be considered as schools and school transport were not designed for social distancing.
While schools could get hand sanitisers, with the current restrictions reopening would "not be easy" because of school layout, the need to maintain distances on buses and at break times, as well as hygiene issues around restrooms and showering.
He said a prudent principal already exploring the use of classrooms for the return of Leaving Cert exam candidates would be restricting numbers to six or seven students, and it would be the same for any class.
Mr Byrne also said the idea of "one day a week", where a limited number of pupils would come in on different days, was "not practical" because classrooms would have to be cleaned between each group.
Account would also have to be taken of the age profile of pupils, and while it would be possible to tell more senior students not to congregate, "it would be very difficult with junior infants", he said.
Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin backed the call from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) for consultations on the reopening of schools.
Both the INTO and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) have pointed to the need to follow public health advice on the matter.
Mr Ó Ríordáin said teachers' unions, staff representatives and parents' associations must be involved in any decision on the potential partial reopening of primary schools. He noted that average class size in Danish primary schools, which are reopening, was 21.
As well as public health concerns, Mr Ó Ríordáin said there were also issues for primary teachers regarding access to childcare for their own children.
"Teachers are more than willing to play their part in this crisis but this type of mixed messaging from Government is not helping," he said.
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