The most interesting aspect of the briefing Education Minister Norma Foley gave the opposition on schools re-opening was how little actual briefing she did.
After turning up an hour late for the conference call, she was introduced by Education Department secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú. She said a few words which amounted to “the data shows schools are safe” before sitting back and allowing Mr Ó Foghlú take the questions from opposition TDs.
She then thanked them for their participation and that was that. Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon questioned why schools in Britain are closing but they aren’t here. Did our officials have different evidence, he asked. Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked if there are plans to keep schools open for the children of frontline workers and those from disadvantaged communities.
Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said schools should not be considered safe in absolute terms. Mr Ó Foghlú kept the mantra going that the current data showed schools are safe places when it comes to Covid transmission when compared with any other settings.
However, an hour or so later chief medical officer Tony Holohan revealed at a Nphet briefing that while the rate of transmission in schools is still below average, it is rising at a fast rate. Perhaps the secretary general and minister had not yet been told of Nphet’s latest assessment before the briefing, or maybe they just didn’t want to tell the opposition. Ministers across the Coalition do not expect schools to re-open next week and this was compounded by the decision by England and Scotland to keep them closed for the rest of the month, if not longer.
Some in Government believe there is an element of Taoiseach Micheál Martin holding on for dear life to his main political achievement since taking office. Mr Martin is proud he managed to keep the schools open safely throughout the pandemic and also that the first-time TD he appointed as Education Minister oversaw the plan. He constantly mentions schools when highlighting his successes so far in Government.
It will be personally difficult for him as a former school teacher to see children denied education for however long it is decided to shut primary and secondary schools.
But science and politics now call for their closure for a brief period of time. It is not that they are unsafe places as Ms Foley made abundantly clear at her meeting with opposition TDs. Rather it’s the knock-on impacts of keeping them open and how the disease might travel from one household to the next when children go home. The unions have also grown increasingly concerned about their members’ safety and there is nothing to be gained from fighting them after teachers stepped up to the plate last year.
Then there’s the international side of things – schools are closing in Britain and inevitably will be too in the North. As hard a pill as it is to swallow for the Taoiseach, he has been left with no other option but to close them. Mind you, not as hard as it will be for the parents forced to juggle home schooling with work for the coming weeks. The novelty factor of the first wave has worn off for families, but what else can be done as we await our vaccines?