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School can't be out forever - lockdown is driving parents bonkers

Mary McCarthy


Risks are low for children and teachers, argues Mary McCarthy

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Mary McCarthy at home with her children John (11), Dermot (7) and Aris (3). Photo: Mark Condren

Mary McCarthy at home with her children John (11), Dermot (7) and Aris (3). Photo: Mark Condren

Mary McCarthy at home with her children John (11), Dermot (7) and Aris (3). Photo: Mark Condren

Along with every parent I know, my blood ran cold reading the latest public health guidance on reopening schools because, instead of a sense of urgency and determination, zero reassurance was offered.

At primary level, the new guidance produced by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre says a distance of one metre should be maintained. At secondary, distancing of at least one metre - two metres, if possible - should be allowed.

To me, this represents 99 problems and not a can-do attitude. Under these rules, clearly not all students will be able to return.

Children are supposed to be going back to school in eight weeks and anxiety is rising.

Parents are at the end of their rope after what has been the ultimate juggle over the past four months. The only announcements we want right now are positive ones.

Last month, the Department of Education cautioned in a report that any form of physical distancing would lead to many students being forced to attend school on a part-time basis.

Parents took this warning in good faith, as a statement of what the Government absolutely does not want to happen and now this interim report has blasted any hope into smithereens.

Germany and France plan to abandon social distancing at the start of the school year and we had been led to believe this would be the case here.

There are reasons why I find the latest guidance absurd. Here are the ones that jump out.

Teacher vulnerability

There will be very few vulnerable adult teachers. Views on asthma have changed in that only those at the very severe end are at risk. Pregnancy is only an issue if you have heart disease - again, very rare.

Most teachers are women (85pc at primary), who carry half the risk men do, and all under-45s are very low-risk. Of course, everybody is at some degree of risk until a vaccine is found.

However, providing they have no underlying health issues, the risk to the majority of the workforce is pretty small. Absolute clarity will be needed regarding identification of vulnerable teachers, with the necessary arrangements made for them. Otherwise the unions may start making general directives to protect members that will act against the best interests of the wider community - kids and parents.

Stating the obvious

This guidance admits small children are unlikely to keep their distance from anyone, so has recommended no social distancing for second class and under.

Apart from stating the obvious, it's also an observation that exists in a strange, alternate reality where social distancing is happening with other kids.

My children have been at parties, in playgrounds, on playdates and from next week will be at camps and there is zero social distancing going on. For teenagers, ditto.

I see my nephews spending all day in their friends' homes and hanging out in parks.

Parents are running on empty

Parents have been unbelievably stretched and are exhausted. I know two mothers who will give up part-time work for the simple reason our school won't be running after-school clubs.

Throw in the possibility of blended learning and this is going to seal the deal for many others, because what we have learned is that online learning is a disaster.

It does not lend itself to socialisation and meaningful assessment and requires full-time parental supervision.

Where technology is required, there will often be problems

There are issues - we had one Zoom call a week for my fifth-class child during lockdown, but three times his teacher was unable to deliver this due to broadband issues.

Teachers are parents too, you know

Many teachers have children of primary-school age, so who is going to look after them when they are at home engaging in so-called "blended learning"?

Children and parents deserve clear guidelines, not vague whisperings. This is interim guidance and our new Education Minister, Norma Foley, has said it is not "definitive".

With Ms Foley's comment in mind, there remains hope that all kids will go back to school full-time. The alternative is too hard to accept and won't be taken lying down.

Irish Independent