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Why we need our classrooms to open in September

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Mary and Pierce Kent

Mary and Pierce Kent

Mary and Pierce Kent

The Government will announce plans regrading the reopening of schools next week. Here parents and teachers explain why they would like them to open their doors in September

The Parent: Making schools safe for vulnerable children is essential

Parent Mary Kent said the Government's plan must ensure special needs schools have the resources to safeguard vulnerable children with serious health conditions.

"There is very little chance that we will allow our son Pierce go back to school in September because it is too big of a risk to his health," she said.

"I would like the Government to give principals of special schools the autonomy and the budgets to do whatever they need to make their schools safe," said the mother-of-three from Cleariestown, Co Wexford.

Pierce (17) has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, and has a mental age of an 18-month-old. He is hyperactive and needs 24-hour care. "Pierce also has epilepsy and suffers from cyclical vomiting syndrome which can cause a tear in his tummy. If it happens, he needs emergency treatment within 30 minutes to stop the bleeding. He is high-risk for Covid," she said.

Pierce is a pupil at St Patrick's Special School in Enniscorthy. The opening of a new school building on the site has been delayed until next January at the earliest. The old building is completely out of date and she believes it will not be adequate for the safe implementation of anti-Covid measures to protect her son.

"Pierce is extremely sociable and hugs and kisses everyone. There isn't a hope of him doing social distancing," she said.

She said Pierce has a relatively small care package from the HSE. Since March, he has been unable to avail of schooling, respite care or summer camps because of the Covid-19 crisis. The school has been depending on voluntary donations of personal protective equipment and anti-virus cleansers, she said.

"We're exhausted and surviving from day to day. Several of my friends with children in the school are at breaking point. But I would guess that half the parents will not send their children back to the school in September," she said.

"Pierce is an amazing young man who has taught me to live in the moment. He brings a pureness and joy to our lives which we could not experience without him.

"We've fought for 17 years to get what we need to keep him healthy and we couldn't have done it without wonderful nurses and doctors who helped us. Exceptional people have kept us going," she said.

Lorraine Dempsey, chairperson of Inclusion Ireland, said home tuition must be made available nationally for medically compromised pupils.

The Primary Principal: Funds for cleaning and substitutes needed

Primary school principal Shane O'Donnell said the Government plan to be unveiled tomorrow needs to address availability of substitute teachers, enhanced cleaning strategies, extra teaching space and significantly increased funding.

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Primary School Principal Shane O'Donnell

Primary School Principal Shane O'Donnell

Primary School Principal Shane O'Donnell

"We will need practical help preparing our classrooms and school. It's not rocket science," said O'Donnell, principal of Four Mile House National School in Co Roscommon.

If a teacher gets sick, pupils cannot be divided among the remaining teachers as overcrowding in the four classrooms is not allowed any more. Substitute teachers, and provision for their pay, must be available or the school could face having to send an entire class home, he said.

Only people who are suitably qualified, with up-to-date Garda vetting, can be considered to take over the role of an absent teacher.

And what will happen if a child gets sick as the school does not have an isolation room, he asked.

There will be 33 pupils in the fourth class in September but O'Donnell needs to know if there will be one-metre social distancing or none. Will furniture need to be removed even though it cannot be stored in the hallway for fire safety reasons?

No social distancing is expected for younger pupils in second class and below. But one-metre distancing for older pupils would mean he would have to consider seeking permission to use the local community centre for classes.

Cleaning in rural schools is usually done by part-time workers and finding ways of meeting much more stringent cleaning obligations will be a challenge, O'Donnell said.

The possibility of providing hot water for pupil hand-washing will need to be considered for funding, he added.

The Secondary Principal: Schools already at work to get students back to class

Work has already begun at Laurel Hill Secondary School FCJ in Limerick to welcome students and teachers back in September. Principal Michael Cregan believes schools will be very different to the ones left behind in March when Covid-19 forced their closure.

His school is keen to welcome everyone back, but safety is paramount, and a suite of measures set to be introduced by the Government to facilitate this will be of huge benefit, he said. "The health and safety of staff and students must supersede all considerations," he added.

Funding will be used at the school to introduce sick bays where children can isolate if they fall ill, or to repurpose parts of the school into classrooms if necessary. Refurbishing the school canteen means students can maintain safe distances at break time.

"PPE and sanitation will also have to be addressed and hopefully that will come to us through public procurement because we don't want to have to source that ourselves because of the difficulty that was there earlier in the crisis in sourcing it."

Cregan, who is the incoming president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), said the work ahead is unprecedented for most schools but has to be done as students need to get back to normal.

"Management, teachers, parents and students all want schools to open and it will be a team effort with everyone working together to make sure that happens.

"It will have been five months by the time students get back, and they do need it. They might complain about the work but the socialisation of schools is so important. They need their friends and that interaction and it is key we harness that again and get it back."


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