Pods and bubbles: Will it be enough to keep schools safe?

Schools acting to help keep Covid-19 at bay – but unanswered questions remain

Schools across the country are set to reopen after months of lockdown, but fears of outbreaks and coughing students have left many staff members anxious about what lies ahead. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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Last month the Government pledged to do everything possible to ensure schools reopen “as normal” for students.

Pupils finally get to return to primary and secondary classrooms from next week onwards – but it will be anything but normal.

Everything about school is set to change: getting there, drop-offs, classroom layouts, break times, extra-curricular activity and pick-up arrangements.

Against a backdrop of rising cases, however, there is growing concern among some teachers and parents over whether some of the safety measures will go far enough. Irish classrooms are among the most over-crowded in Europe.

Many teachers and parents have questioned how it can be safe to have up to 30 children in a classroom at a time when official guidance is to have no more than six people in our houses.

Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) modelling group, said it safe to do so if older adults “starve the virus of opportunities to transmit” .

He said fewer than one in 2,000 people have the virus right now and what matters is the total number of contacts at a population level.

Reducing contacts

While one million children due to go to school, he said the risk of transmission can be cut by about 80 per cent if the rest of the population reduces its contacts with others and follows public health guidelines. This, in turn, should reduce the “R” transmission rale below one and lead to a decline in infections.

Minister for Education Norma Foley also insisted this week that a €375 million package will allow all schools to put in place the measures needed to reopen safely.

“This will ensure there is a safe environment in the school and that covers everything from the provision of cleaning to PPE and a substantial minor works grant which has been paid out to schools,” she said.

Schools, meanwhile, are adopting a range of approaches – taking into account national guidelines and their individual circumstances – aimed at keeping the virus at bay.

This is what to expect in schools as they start to open over the coming days:

Getting ready for school

There has been plenty of debate over whether school uniform policies will be relaxed or suggest uniforms are washed each day.

Official safety guidelines do not make any recommendation on this. In the vast majority of schools, uniform policies will not change.

Similarly, there are no guidelines on lunchboxes. However, many schools will have no-sharing policies; some are asking children to bring their lunch to school in a paper bag rather than in a lunch box to lessen the risk of cross contamination between school and home.

A briefing by the NPHET on Thursday night heard public health guidance around children returning to school will be released next week.

Getting to school

For the 120,000 children who travel on schoolbus routes, “buddy” systems are set to apply with pupils asked to sit next to the same person each day.

At primary, physical distancing is not required and neither are face masks.

Secondary students, however, are required to wear facemasks and physically distance, under new public health advice issued earlier this week. This means bus capacity will reduce by 50 per cent.

The Department of Education and Bus Éireann say they plan to implement these changes on a “rolling” basis, though it is likely many secondary school buses will not be able to operate with social distancing.

The official advice encourages anyone who can get to school by walking or cycling to do so. Some primary schools are organising “cycle buses”, where a convoy of socially distanced pupils and parents bike to school together.

School drop-offs

Many schools are operating staggered drop-off times for different classes, though these aren’t popular with parents faced with bringing children of different ages to school.

Other schools are requiring children to go straight to their classroom or line up with their teacher outside. There will be no assemblies or whole-school gatherings.

Parents in most cases are being asked not to congregate at the school and to avoid entering school grounds, unless by appointment.

Primary school classroom

Most children will be in pods of four or six children, and will be separated from their teacher and other tables by at least one metre. Each class “bubble” will remain separate from others.

In many cases, this means staggered breaktimes or dividing the schoolyard into areas for different classes.

Each classroom will have access to hand-sanitiser or washbasins and soap for regular hand hygiene. Classrooms will be kept ventilated with windows open, where possible. There will be daily cleaning of classrooms, while toilets will be cleaned on a regular basis.

In many schools, clear screens are being erected around teachers’ desks at the top of classrooms.

Secondary school classroom

Physical distancing of at least one metre will apply in secondary school classrooms. Students will also be required to wear face masks.

In many cases, secondary schools are using their gyms and staffrooms as classrooms to adapt to these new rules. Some are even planning to hold classes outdoors, weather-permitting.

Students are being encouraged in most schools to have their own pocket-sized hand sanitiser to prevent queues forming, and will be asked to use it each morning, before eating or drinking, after using the toilet or when entering or leaving a new classroom.

Teaching

Even teaching will change, with a greater emphasis on well-being and consolidating literacy and numeracy after six months out of class.

At second level there will be fewer school field trips, little or no work experience for transition years and changed papers for those heading into State exams.

Sport and extra-curricular activity will also change. Most schools will focus on teaching in the initial weeks before considering after-school activities such as swimming, football, athletics, drama, music, chess, debating, etc.

Whenever possible. schools aim to hold PE classes and activities will take place outside the school building.

School pick-up

Many primary schools will have staggered pick-up times, with classes released at intervals. Parents in many cases are being requested not to congregate in groups and remain in cars, where possible.

Secondary students going home on buses or waiting to be collected will be asked to abide by normal social distancing rules.

Unanswered questions

While there are a range of safety measures in place, students, teachers and parents still say some do not go far enough and highlight a series of unanswered questions

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation wants rapid Covid-19 testing to ensure schools have enough staff to function. It is not clear yet whether this will be available.

In addition, the Irish Second Level Students’ Union says immunocompromised students need greater clarity on what kind of education they can expect to get if they cannot return to the classroom.

Guidance is also needed on the steps to follow for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of a closure, according to the union.

For children with special needs, there is also frustration among parents and campaigners over what they see as a lack of clarity around how students with additional needs will be effectively supported.

Autism charity AsIAm , for example, says children with additional needs typically leave the classroom at certain times of the day to access one-to-one teaching or to integrate from their special class into a mainstream class. However, it is unclear how or if these options will be available in each school this year due to rules that limit the mixing of students.

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