Q&A: Could schools reopen before September in light of new health advice?

Q&A: Could schools reopen before September in light of new health advice?

There’s lots of commentary about reopening schools. How safe would it be to do this?

Latest research by the HSE has concluded that schools are “not a high-risk setting” for the transmission of Covid-19.

The report published in a European journal on infectious disease surveillance concludes that reopening of schools should be considered as an early rather than a late measure in the lifting of restrictions.

On what evidence has the HSE based its conclusion that schools are “not a high-risk” setting?

Public health experts examined all known cases of the virus in school settings in Ireland prior to the shutdown of schools on March 12th.

There were six confirmed cases in all – three children and three adults.

An examination of more than 1,000 contacts of these cases in the school settings found there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the following two weeks.

These contacts were exposed in classrooms, sports lessons, music lessons and choir practice for a religious ceremony which involved a number of schools mixed in a church setting.

These findings echo similar research in Iceland, Italy and Australia.

The authors conclude there are “no zero risk approaches, but the school environment appears to be low risk.”

What is the Government’s stance on school reopening?

The Government’s roadmap for reopening society still envisages schools reopening on a phased basis in September.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has confirmed this and warned of “massive” logistical work in reopening them safely.

This week, he said that even if social distancing rules are relaxed from two to one metre, all children will still not be in a position to resume school full-time and online learning will continue.

He pledged a “model” for reopening schools in September will be ready within a fortnight.

What’s happening elsewhere in Europe?

In the UK, schools are due to partially reopen on June 1st for pupils in reception (age four to five), year one (age five to six) and year six (age 10-11).

Across the rest of Europe, millions of children have been returning to classrooms in recent weeks. Denmark was among the first to reopen over a month ago and announced recently that transmission of the virus has continued to fall.

What is the view of teachers, principals and parents over reopening schools in Ireland?

Last month, teachers’ and principals’ representatives expressed a willingness to reopen schools in June, if it was deemed safe and in line with public health advice.

However, since the Government ruled this out, their focus has shifted to ensuring detailed guidance and supports are in place to ensure schools can resume safely.

The National Parents’ Council Primary has called for public health advice to be kept under regular review and for schools to be partially reopened in mid-June for some cohorts of students, if safe to do so.

So, is there any chance schools will reopen in advance of September?

There is still a possibility – though for a limited number of children.

The Department of Education is working on a “summer programme” for children with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This is likely to be a combination of online and in-school provision, according to Mr McHugh, if public health advice allows.

The programme is an adaption of the “July provision” scheme, which benefits about 10,000 children each summer.

What will school look like when it reopens?

It is likely that schools will reopen in September with students attending on a rotating basis for certain days of the week and learning online at other times.

School managers and teachers’ representatives have indicated it will be impossible to accommodate all children in school due to social distancing rules.

The Irish Primary Principals Network says some principals estimate about one third of a class would fit in a standard classroom if a two-metre distance is required between desks. This could require pupils attending school on every third day, it notes.

It has ruled out the idea of having half-days for pupils, where some would attend school in the morning and the remainder in the afternoon, due to the added burden of cleaning classrooms and the staggering of drop-off and collection times.

Mr McHugh has also said even if two-metre social distancing rules are reduced to a single metre, school will not be able to accommodate all pupils.

How will schools implement social distancing?

Most schools acknowledge it will be very difficult to implement these rules, especially at primary level.

As a result, school managers have suggested students could stay in groups or “pods”.

For example, the same group of ten students would attend school together and play together at breaktime.

In addition, sharing of desks, books, devices and other materials would be minimised.

When will we get a clear idea if what, exactly, is planned for schools in Ireland?

The Minister for Education has said officials are examining school reopening policies in other countries and will have a “model” produced within the next fortnight. There will likely be a large degree of flexibility in the plan given the diversity in the size of schools in Ireland.

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