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Two-day weeks, staggered pick up times and class 'bubbles': How classrooms could operate in September

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(stock photo)

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

The Department of Education's document detailing plans to safely begin the reopening of schools gives an insight into how classrooms will operate from the beginning of the new academic year.

The report is based on a risk-based assessment weighing up the damage to education and the safety of staff and pupils in order to develop an "optimum model" for school reopening.

The planning document highlights the challenges physical distancing requirements will pose in school settings at both primary and post-primary level, and the "extreme" impact this could have on student's education.

It reviews if schools could apply different social distancing rules than other parts of society to ensure children are not facing a part-time return to the classroom.

It says the department will analyse the experience in other countries, such as Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK, that have, or will, reopened schools in advance of the start of the upcoming academic year in Ireland.

It has also considered guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC); World Health Organisation (WHO) and follows public health advice.

Physical distancing requirements

Two metres

A two-metre distancing rule would result in almost all primary pupils to attending school for one day a week and most post-primary pupils for two days a week.

One metre

A one-metre distancing requirement means almost all primary pupils would be attending school 2 ½ days a week.

At post-primary level, it would result in some year groups attending school 50pc of the time and other year groups attending school at or near a full-time basis.

It says physical distancing could have the "most extreme" impacts on student’s education and well-being as face-to-face engagement is "detrimental" in delivering a "meaningful" education.

It also means students will be expected to engage in blended learning and will be at home half of each week.

The document says social distancing requirements could impose "direct constraints" on plans to reopen schools due to class sizes, teacher and other staff availability, and the physical space available in a school setting.

It says: "The physical size of our schools, and the number of individual classrooms within them, represents the most significant constraint to achieve a physical distance between students in the classroom. Teacher supply will also be a significant consideration."

The space available in schools will make it difficult to "achieve physical distance of 1 to 2 metres between students in the classroom and to continue to accommodate all the students within the school at the same time. "

The document highlights WHO Guidance where there is a question on whether the physical distance between students can be maintained throughout the school and how supporting measures can be taken to minimize risks within the school community and the wider community.

It considers if a different approach to physical distancing should be implemented in schools in comparison to other parts of society or business.

Although some schools will be in a position to repurpose GP Halls / PE Halls to make some additional capacity or access local and community resources to maximise available capacity, this "will not be a panacea for the physical distancing constraints," and "will at best make some marginal improvements."

However, it says that overall, it is not "feasible" to identify and implement additional classroom capacity.

"It is not feasible, from a cost, sustainability or delivery perspective, to identify and implement the additional classroom capacity (through pre-fabricated units, construction work) across each school.

"It is also not feasible to consider the wholesale splitting of classes and recruiting extra teachers – given that there are significant teacher supply issues currently."

Hand washing and enhanced cleaning regimes

The planning document says training on good hand hygiene will be provided to students and staff in order to implement proper hand hygiene in schools.

It says existing handwashing facilities in schools are "not designed" for the level of hand-washing needed in a post Covid-19 environment without having a significant impact on time spent in class.

"Proper hand hygiene must be implemented in schools. Training on good hand hygiene will be developed centrally and provided to schools for students and staff.

"It is recognised that the existing handwashing facilities in schools, are not designed for the enhanced level of handwashing envisaged necessary in post COVID-19 environment without significantly impact on educational class time."

It says hand-sanitisers will be installed in every classroom in every school across the country.

"It is anticipated that it will be necessary to install hand-sanitisers in every classroom in every school in the country, and to enable the supply of sanitizer fluid for each school to cater for 1 million students and circa 100,000 staff using it a number of times each day.

"It is envisaged that this will be managed via a drawdown framework for use by schools to purchase sanitiser etc. Given the supply issues and lead in times, the procurement process is being initiated. today and it will also deal with any other potential PPE requirements."

Schools are to also adopt "more regular and enhanced" cleaning regimes.

The document includes a commitment to extra funding for school cleaning and hand sanitisers.

Getting to school

Under an "optimum" model of school reopening, the document advises that staggered pick up and drop of times are arranged in order to restrict movements within schools, stating: "Every effort can be made to restrict movements within the schools, confine students to class groupings/bubbles, arrange staggered drop off/pick up times etc."

The document says schoolchildren in urban areas will be encouraged to use alternative means of transport, such as walking and cycling, more often to reduce the impact schools reopening could have on the transport system.

"In urban areas, this will mean supporting the NTA in promoting various alternative means for children to get to school in a safe way, including walking and cycling and more generally in reducing the impact on the public transport system of school reopening," it says.

It says transport for students in rural areas will require "careful planning" for the rural school transport scheme and Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport, which may have to operate under constraints due to significant cost and the impact physical distancing guidelines will have on fleets at the time of reopening.

"In rural areas, it will mean careful planning for the rural school transport scheme and SEN transport, which may have to operate under constraints due to the very significant cost and fleet impacts that may arise from physical distancing guidelines in place in transport at the time of reopening.

"Estimated impacts and other additional costs which will arise from hygiene and cleaning measures are under consideration by DES in consultation with Bus Eireann, the NTA, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform."

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