Children should not attend school while self-isolating after holidaying abroad
Department of Education to publish guidelines on schools reopening by end of July
Monica Hickey, 5th class teacher, and Matt Melvin, school principal, at St Etchen’s National School, Kinnegad, Co Westmeath in a classroom that can now accommodate 20 pupils according to the HSE guidelines on social distancing in schools. Photograph: Alan Betson
Children who return from holidays abroad should not be permitted to go to school if they have not completed a 14-day self-isolation process, the Department of Education secretary general has said.
Speaking at the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19 response, Seán Ó Foghlú, secretary general at the Department of Education, said Government wanted to see all children return to school for full days of classes as “safely and as normally as possible”.
On the issue of children travelling abroad on holidays, he said if a student is required to isolate after returning they should not be permitted to come to school during that self-isolation process. *
In the meantime, he said the Government was considering updated travel advice and arrangements for isolation.
The department is scheduled to issue re-opening guidelines to schools by the end of July so that principals and teachers have time to prepare ahead of September, the secretary general told the committee. The plan will also include information on breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and children receiving school meals, he said.
Mr Ó Foghlú said “significant additional staff” would be needed across schools and that the department hoped to create “more full time posts”
He acknowledged that online “blended learning” was not working for all students and said that while the department was preparing contingency distance learning plans in case of a second virus spike, the focus was on getting children back into school as soon as possible.
Mr Ó Foghlú said additional funding would be made available to schools to pay for personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional hygiene equipment but said he hoped PPE use would remain limited in school settings. He did not give an exact figure for these costs but said estimates were being prepared.
Asked whether children would have to wear masks in school, Mr Ó Foghlú said health advice did not indicate school students needed to use PPE.
However, face masks were encouraged for children aged 13 or over when using public transport and visors may be needed for adults working in very close proximity to children in some instances, such as bus escorts*.
Mr Ó Foghlú said his department was in discussions with Bus Éireann about arranging school transport and that a national tender was underway.
School attendance when ill
He added that it was “vital” for parents, staff and students to “change the culture” of attending school with a cold or runny nose. Keeping the coronavirus out of schools will be key in ensuring schools can re-open and remain open and students, their families and staff should take personal responsibility to stay home if they feel unwell or display any Covid-19 symptoms, he said.
The inability of a children to attend school because of sickness will be noted so that students are not overly penalised for days missing from class, said Mr Ó Foghlú.
“I think we have to be very careful that there may be children who have disengaged and we don’t want to turn off the light for them after 20 days missing. We need to find ways to engage to ensure this risk of non-engagement doesn’t give rise to high levels of non-attendance.”
He acknowledged that a certain degree of flexibility would be needed in figuring out how physical distancing would work in schools and said focusing on the issue too much could be “potentially counterproductive” for children’s education.
“Reopening our schools is not just a matter of achieving a certain minimum physical distancing, it is about getting students reengaged for learning, socialising with their peers, for some preparing for exams for others, transitioning to school life.”
The 200 school construction projects which were taking place prior to Covid-19 lockdown have “largely all remobilised” and the department is satisfied contingency arrangements will be available for schools in need of additional space, he said.
Asked how many schools were struggling to find additional space to accommodate for social distancing, Hubert Loftus, assistant secretary to the department of education, said only a “small fraction, a handful are acutely affected”.
Mr Loftus added that the most acute cases were “no more than a dozen” and that his department would be working with schools individually “where there are pinch points to be managed”.
Mr Ó Foghlú said the department was conscious of the different layouts between large urban schools and small rural schools and that it was working on a range of options to ensure classrooms are made as safe as possible.
* This article has been amended to clarify advice on wearing masks for children.