More than 90% of parents want schools fully open in autumn, survey finds

INTO says one-metre distancing will pose challenge, especially with ‘super-size’ classes.

National Parents’ Council Post Primary says parents will be required to “step outside comfort zones”. Photograph: iStock

National Parents’ Council Post Primary says parents will be required to “step outside comfort zones”. Photograph: iStock

 

An overwhelming majority of parents want their children fully back to school in the autumn, the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee has been told.

A survey of almost 30,000 parents found that 91 per cent of them believed it important their children return to school fully by September.

The questionnaire, conducted by the National Parents Council Primary also found a large majority – 83 per cent – said it would be difficult for their child to settle into school if blended learning (a mixture of school attendance and online learning) was involved.

Teachers’ unions, however, warned that a full return to school may not be possible in light of new public health guidelines released on Wednesday.

They state that a one-metre distance should apply between most pupils, with the exception of children in junior infants to second class.

On Thursday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin voiced his determination to see the reopening of schools at the end of August and said children needed to get back into the school environment to ensure their “life chances” and development was not “irreparably” affected by long-term closures.

However, he warned that if another spike of the virus occurred between now and August it could jeopardise the reopening of schools in the autumn.

Addressing the Oireachtas committee earlier on Thursday, secretary general of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation John Boyle said the one-metre distancing guideline would pose a challenge, particularly with “super-size” classes.

“No matter what way the maths is done, it will be very difficult to fit 35 or 36 children into an 80sq metre room, not to mention some of the smaller, older classrooms,” he said.

Sick teachers

Mr Boyle also asked how it would be possible to guarantee that schools would remain open if teachers were absent because of symptoms and the department did not provide for substitute teachers.

“We will not be able to have classes split willy-nilly throughout the school” and extra supports were needed to cope with this, he said.

The general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), one of two unions representing second-level teachers, told the committee he was unable to say when school may reopen fully to all students.

Responding to a question by Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD, John MacGabhann said it would have to be done in a manner that guaranteed safety “for children, students in the case of second-level schools, for parents, the broader community and, I say without apology, for our members”.

He stressed that “the effort will not be lacking” from his members, to ensure this happened.

The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland general secretary Kieran Christie also warned that many schools would not be back full-time – based on the guidelines issued on Wednesday – but may resume on a “ restricted” basis.

He said social distancing was the key variable and he could not state when a full return might happen.

Home learning

The National Parents’ Council Primary survey also highlighted a key challenge in motivating students who learn from home.

It found that just 28 per cent of parents said their children would be motivated or very motivated to learn at home while 72 per cent said they would be only slightly motivated or not at all motivated.

NPC chief executive Áine Lynch, who gave details of the study to the committee, said the findings raised concerns about whether blended learning would actually take place or if it would be “in effect a shortened school week”.

President of the National Parents’ Council Post Primary Mai Fanning said people would be required to “step outside our comfort zones and face the fact that, for some time to come, there may be some calculated and considered risks which need to be taken in our efforts to effectively take care of the nation’s children and students”.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said earlier this week that the guidance would lend itself to the “optimum” reopening of schools.

When asked if schools may not be able to fully reopen, she said it was difficult to be definitive.

“You can never be definitive . . . We are moving towards the reopening of schools, and the safe reopening of schools, with an accommodation for everyone in the entire school community.”

Opposition TDs, however, say parents are still confused over whether their children will be able to return to school in September.

Mr Ó Laoghaire said the department needed to “get a grip” on school reopening plans, while Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said it was impossible to see how schools could fully reopen without a financial package.