Pods, bubbles, staggered drop-offs: Reopening schools in a brave new world

Physical distancing of at least one metre recommended for most classes

Primary school pupils and their teachers will be encouraged to form class bubbles or groupings which stay apart from other classes as much as possible. File photograph: Getty

Primary school pupils and their teachers will be encouraged to form class bubbles or groupings which stay apart from other classes as much as possible. File photograph: Getty

 

With less than eight weeks to go before the start of the new school year, health authorities have released interim guidelines for the safe reopening of schools. Once implemented, school life will look very different than before. Here are some of the key recommendations:

Social distancing

Primary: A distance of one metre should be maintained between desks or between individual pupils. Given that younger children are unlikely to maintain physical distancing indoors, this recommendation will not apply to the first four years of primary school (junior infants to second class).

Secondary: Physical distancing of two metres where possible or at least one metre should be maintained between students or staff. Schools should consider moving to individual desks and chairs for students.

Class bubbles

Primary: Pupils and their teachers will be encouraged to form class bubbles or groupings which stay apart from other classes as much as possible. Within each class, there may be pods or smaller groups, which should stay at least one metre away from other pods.

Secondary: As far as possible students should remain in the classroom and teachers would move between rooms. Double classes, where possible, would minimise movement during the day. In cases where students have to change classroom, hand washing/sanitising is required by both teachers and students.

Dropping off/picking up children

Walking/cycling to school should be encouraged. To avoid congregation at school gates, schools should consider staggered drop-off/pick-up times; opening up additional entrances or access points and instructing pupils to head straight for the classroom.

For those arriving by car, parents may be encouraged to park further away from the school and then walk with their children to avoid congestion.

Pupils at Willowpark Primary Academy in Oldham, England, after their return to a socially distanced classroom last month. New guidelines for the reopening of schools in Ireland in August state that a one-metre distance should be maintained between most students. File photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP
Pupils at Willowpark Primary Academy in Oldham, England, after their return to a socially distanced classroom last month. New guidelines for the reopening of schools in Ireland in August state that a one-metre distance should be maintained between most students. File photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

Face masks

Students: It is not practical for many students to wear a mask properly for the duration of a school day. Older students should not be requested to wear a facial covering, but those who may wish to may do so.

Teachers: Face coverings for teachers are not, in general, considered necessary, as they conceal facial expression and can make communication difficult.

However, wearing a visor may be an appropriate alternative in situations where there may be behavioural issues or tending to intimate care needs.

Gloves

Use of disposable gloves in schools by pupils or teachers is not appropriate.

Temperature checks

On-site temperature taking is not recommended because fever is not a consistent symptom of Covid-19 in children and would result in delayed school entry.

Hand hygiene

Pupils and staff should wash or sanitise their hands on arrival at school; before eating or drinking; after using the toilet; after petting animals; and after playing outdoors.

Sharing books or devices

Art students should be encouraged to have their own art supplies. Shared electronics such as tablets and keyboards should be cleaned between use. Musical instruments should not be shared between students, if possible.

Textbooks that are shared should be covered in a wipeable plastic covering that can be wiped with cleaning agent between uses. Sharing of sports equipment should also be minimised.

Rules for teaching staff

Two metres is recommended for physical distancing by staff on breaks or arriving for work. Breaks should be staggered. At post-primary level, the formation of school staff “pods”, or teams who work together and take breaks together, should be considered. Staff meetings may be held remotely, or in small groups or in large spaces to facilitate physical distancing.

Canteens

Schools should ensure that physical distancing is applied in canteen facilities, with classes or groupings served at different times on a staggered basis.

Break times

The risk of virus transmission due to contact with outside surfaces or play areas is low. However, schools should aim to keep groups together, to stagger breaktimes and to promote outdoor access.

Choir practice/music

Choir practices/performances and music practices/performances involving wind instruments may pose a higher level of risk and special consideration should be given to how they are held, ensuring the room is well ventilated and distancing between performers is maintained.

Sport

Schools should follow the existing advice of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre’s guidelines for return to sports activities, which advise socially distanced training.

Cleaning regimes

Schools should also consider ways of reducing the need for touching objects by installing no-touch waste containers, propping doors open, and using sensor-operated hand towels.

Where possible the keeping open of doors and windows should be encouraged to increase natural ventilation and to reduce contact with door handles.

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