Post-primary education will present largest problem, writes Katherine Donnelly
It will be the most unusual back to school ever: returning to classrooms for the 2020/21 year comes with an unprecedented health warning.
The killer virus, Covid-19, associated with more than 1,700 deaths in Ireland, will still be lurking around.
When it first arrived, the rapid closure of schools and colleges on March 12 meant it didn't get an opportunity to show what damage it may have done had the education system remained open.
As planning for the September return continues, the threat is as real as it was in March; what's different is the growing knowledge about its transmission, who is most at risk and how to deal with it.
Everyone wants all children and young people back in school together in September.
It is desperately needed after three months out of the classroom, a period during which educational inequality widened, many pupils disengaged and all missed out on the socialisation that is part and parcel of school life.
Distance teaching and learning worked well in many cases, but as Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle told an Oireachtas Committee this week, face-to-face interaction and close connection that teachers have with pupils in the classroom is irreplaceable.
Last month, the Government set a high ambition for a full return to school, meaning all pupils back together, rather than on a rotational basis for perhaps a day, or two or three days a week, at a time.
There will be pupils and staff members with underlying health conditions for whom a return will not be advisable and particular challenges for schools where space will not allow them easily to accommodate the new normal, but as full a return as possible is now Plan A. Contingency arrangements are also in train for a partial return.
Newly-appointed Education Minister Norma Foley confirmed a full return remains the target, although she acknowledged that it was hard to be definitive. The ambition for reopening has to be set high, because the alternative is far from satisfactory. Apart from the damage to education, if children are at home, parents will have be there too and in a position to supervise schoolwork.
But the return must be safe for all, and preparations are based on a combination of social distancing and a suite of other measures to prevent and control infection.
There is understandable concern and anxiety about how it will work - or rather, how it can work. How does one fit 20-plus pupils, a teacher and an SNA into a classroom, when a hairdresser with a handful of daily clients is hard-pressed to avoid breaching health and safety guidelines? Interim public health guidance around school reopening was published this week. It goes into detail on the 'known knowns' and leaves no doubt about the sort of military-style logistics facing school communities in the autumn: regular handwashing, plenty of hand sanitisers, keeping classes apart as much as possible, staggering yard breaks and visits to the canteen, and ensuring there is no congregation at the gates. The list goes on.
But the elephant sitting in the nation's classroom is the 'known unknown' of what social distancing rules will apply in late August/September when schools are due to open their doors to pupils for the first time in almost six months,
This week's guidance recommends no social distancing for pupils from junior infants to second class. From third class up to Leaving Cert, it advises a minimum separation of one metre and, where possible in post-primary, two metres.
Public health advice is a red line for teachers' unions, whatever about primary schools. It was immediately obvious to them that the distancing recommendations did not pave the way for a full return at post-primary.
So, there is a gap between the nation's aspiration for the first week in September and the actuality of public health guidance in the first week of July, into which teachers' unions stepped to make their position clear.
Yesterday, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn shone some light into the gap when he said that distancing guidelines for schools could be further relaxed over time. His words of hope came with the caveat that it could only happen if the Covid-19 situation continued to improve. Will it happen by the end of August?
There is, of course, the danger that not only will it not improve but that the situation could deteriorate.
If so, it's Plan B.