McHugh confident changes to public health advice will allow more pupils resume school

Minister due to publish roadmap for school reopening at end of next week

Minister for Education Joe McHugh says he is confident that public health advice will change soon to allow a “maximum” number of pupils return to school in late August.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, he said current public health guidelines - based on two-metre social distancing rules - would only allow a partial reopening of schools.

However, based on recent briefings and international developments, Mr McHugh said he was “confident” this will change in advance of publishing a roadmap for reopening schools. This is due to be published at the end of next week.

The Minister was responding to questions from Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, who asked Mr McHugh if schools will reopen on a “full or phased” basis.


“If the current health guidelines stay as they are, we’re in a position where you’ll be looking at a partial reopening,” Mr McHugh said.

"But if you listen carefully to what I've had to say in my public commentary, I am working - through my officials and public health officials in the Department of Health - to look at difference advice, which they are learning all the time from European and international experience . . .

“So, I am confident to say here publicly that that advice will change. I am also in a position to say that we will be in a better position, before I make an announcement at Cabinet, on what that advice will be.”

Schools have indicated that even if social distancing rules are relaxed from two to one metres, many students will still not be able to be accommodated in classrooms.

However, Department of Education sources have indicated that one option being examined is segregating large groups of students or even entire classes at all times, so they have little or no contact with other school students.

This could allow larger numbers return to school full-time and, potentially, by-pass social distancing rules.

Countries such as Greece, France, Denmark and the UK, for example, allow groups of up to 15 students in a classroom who are kept apart from other pupils in the school.

Mr McHugh said he will return to Cabinet at the end of next week with a detailed roadmap on how to reopen schools safely.

“ I want to see the maximum return to school possible in late August and September consistent with the need to do this in a safe way,” he said.

Managing the re-opening of schools was a “massive logistical operation” that requires careful planning and management, he told the Dáil.

“My Department is engaging in a process of detailed planning and stakeholder engagement at primary and post-primary level to support the achievement of this objective in a way that is safe for students and staff.”

Among other things, he said his officials are examining public health guidance and mitigation measures to build confidence within the school community of teachers, staff, parents and children.

There will also be measures to ensure hygiene and infection prevention and control, along with training for staff and communication with families to promote those measures.

This will include good hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning, good respiratory practices.

In addition, he said much attention will focus on promoting children’s wellbeing in returning to school.

"I am paying very close attention to the experience of countries which have re-opened schools, and to emerging scientific evidence. I will be continuing to engage with my counterparts in the North, the UK and across Europe to learn from their experiences," he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent