Minister for Education Joe McHugh has signalled the two-metre social distancing rule may be relaxed for students to allow a full return to primary and post-primary education.
Mr McHugh brought a report to Cabinet on Friday that showed if social distancing was reduced to one metre in education, primary school pupils could attend school 50 per cent of the time, and some post-primary students could attend almost on a full-time basis.
He said that with two-metre social distancing, it would mean some primary schools students could attend school only one day a week while secondary students could attend only two days a week.
Later, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also said he supported a full return of pupils to schools. However, even reducing the social distance to one metre would not be enough as primary school students would have to remain home for half the school week.
Mr McHugh said they would look at other options that have been tried in schools in Belgium, Denmark, France and elsewhere including strict hygiene standards, and handwashing regimes.
However it was pointed out that hand-washing protocols took up 45 minutes of a student’s school day. In addition, the estimated cost of extra cleaning for Irish schools for the first term from September to December would run to €24 million, according to estimates produced for the Department of Education.
Mr McHugh, in setting out an argument for a full return, said the restrictions would have a very negative impact and the aim of the Government was a full return to normal education activity.
He said a common sense approach must be taken and that a two-metre social distancing rule would have a negative impact.
It was his preference, he said, to have a full reopening of all schools with a return of all students to their normal education routine.
“My clear intention and the goal of the Government and the entire education sector is to have a full reopening of all schools for all children at the end of August and into September.
“A full reopening of schools and the return of all students to their normal education routine is in the best interests of everyone.”
Mr McHugh said it was his clear personal preference that all children return to school on a full-time basis from late August if possible.
“If we just bring back 20 or 50 per cent we could potentially do more damage due to the educational neglect and regression as a consequence of that.
“It is not just a personal ambition. We have looked at the scenario of blended learning and home schooling and the [present difficulties].”
He said a full decision on a solution would be made this month.
He pointed to recent scientific evidence which showed that children under 13 years old did not need to wear face masks and how younger people in general were less affected by the virus.
He said his department would also look at situations in other countries such as Belgium, Denmark and France where there had been full returns to school.
A Government source said the solution would be more complex than reducing the distance from two metres to one metre. The source said they would have to come up with creative solutions (akin to the pods in childcare) as even with a one-metre rule, it would not allow all pupils to return to school.
The rule change, it was stressed, would be confined to education and would not be extended to any other section of society.
The decision will be based on evidential research conducted by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
He said measures would have to be taken to adapt to the new realities we will all have to face after the Covid-19 pandemic and detailed engagement is under way in relation to the development of public health guidance for schools.
“I want a common sense approach to the reopening of schools. Where possible, children, young people and staff should be far enough away from each other, so that they are not breathing on, or touching each other and this will have to be accompanied with good hygiene practices and regular cleaning of commonly touched surfaces.”
Meanwhile, the Cabinet has approved a three-strand summer education programme for children with severe learning difficulties, for those facing educational or economic disadvantage, and a respite programme in schools for children with complex needs.
The summer programmes have been available to more than 10,000 students in the past but because of schools being closed due to the pandemic, the schemes are being greatly expanded.
The Government said on Friday that the programmes would allow a wide range of children to benefit including those with severe and profound needs, those with Down syndrome and those with severe visual or hearing impairment.
The programme will provide classes to more than 10,000 children with severe learning difficulties, including those with autism. The programme will run for a minimum of two weeks.
In addition, all 890 Deis schools in the State, which cater for pupils facing disadvantage, will be able to provide summer camps, including a numeracy and literacy programme for primary pupils.
The one-week programme will be offered on a voluntary basis. Schools will have flexibility on when to hold the courses during the summer. The courses will include literacy, numeracy and wellbeing.
The third strand will be led by the Health Service Executive and will aim to give respite to more than 1,200 children with complex needs. These will be delivered in the form of activity-based summer camps.
It will allow these children who have been confined in their homes since the outbreak began to re-engage with schools and meet their peers.
The decision comes after sustained campaigning by advocacy groups for parents and children, who fall into these categories.
Mr McHugh said the aim was to help address the concerns that families had “over the loss of in-school time and learning for children with special needs and those at greatest risk of disadvantage”.
He acknowledged there were gaps in the continuity of education for these children.