Taoiseach warns parents they must follow distancing rules
About 340,000 pupils are back in school today for the first time since Christmas with hopes of a wider return hingeing on the success of keeping Covid out of their classrooms.
Half of primary pupils – from junior infants to second class – are in the first phase of the return along with 63,000 Leaving Cert candidates.
All other primary pupils, and fifth years, are pencilled in for a March 15 return, while post primary classes from first to fourth year will have to wait until after Easter.
But the roll-out of the schedule depends on how the virus behaves in the face of the mass mobilisation triggered by today’s partial re-opening, involving about one third of the school population.
Teacher unions and school leaders will also be watching to see whether the highly contagious Covid variant that is now dominant, and which was only emerging before Christmas, leads to higher transmission within schools.
That will be a key focus in ongoing talks about the next stage of re-opening. In the first instance, Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said they were awaiting public health data from schools where special classes returned last Monday.
Schools have been working hard in recent days to prepare to welcome pupils back. They have been told there must be strict adherence to infection prevention and control
There is also a campaign urging parents to play their part in keeping the virus out of the classroom, including not sending children in if they have Covid-like symptoms
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said parents needed to be acutely aware of social distancing controls and the necessity to avoid gatherings near schools.
He warned they had a critical role to play in ensuring the reopening proved a success and further phased re-openings of classes could take place.
“Please avoid congregations – particularly the parents as they drop off children, The most natural thing is the world is to stop and have a chat, to meet and to engage. But we are asking people: please do not [do that].”
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn has also appealed to parents not to congregate outside schools when dropping off children.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie said any member of the school community – staff or student – who had symptoms of Covid or was a close contact of a confirmed case must stay at home.
“We have already stated that we will not tolerate breaches of key safety measures in workplaces,” he said
He said at a national level, the situation must be kept under constant and forensic review, while adherence to the measures that protect the health and safety of students, staff and their families must be the key priority in every school.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Norma Foley has announced an enhanced package of supports for schools in disadvantaged communities, effective from September.
It builds on a number of measures in Budget 2021 and a recognition of the need to bolster schools serving pupils whose education has suffered the most as a result of Covid closures and who are at greatest risk of disengagement
It includes extending the number of primary schools in the DEIS scheme for disadvantaged areas that will benefit from an improved pupil-teacher ratio.
Among the measures announced in the Budget was a cut in class sizes for the most disadvantaged (Band 1) Deis urban schools that had senior classes only, but now all Deis Band 1 urban schools will benefit from another 50 teaching posts.
The School Completion Programme is being extended to include 14 urban primary and 14 post-primary schools included in DEIS in 2017 and will also receive an overall 5pc funding increase
Ms Foley has also announced a reduction of the enrolment threshold for the allocation of an additional deputy principal in DEIS post-primary schools, from 700 to 600 pupils.