Q&A: What sort of measures will support schools reopening?

School aid package worth hundreds of millions of euro to be unveiled on Monday

Hand sanister and personal protective equipment  will be distributed to schools. The cost between now and the end of the year is estimated at about €50 million. Photograph: David Sleator

Hand sanister and personal protective equipment will be distributed to schools. The cost between now and the end of the year is estimated at about €50 million. Photograph: David Sleator

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The Taoiseach has pledged that schools will reopen fully. How can we be sure this will actually happen?

Micheál Martin’s announcement on Friday was aimed at getting a simple message across to parents, pupils and teachers: it is now the Government’s main priority to reopen schools fully and safely in late August.

A lack of clarity in recent weeks over whether this will happen has led to a growing sense of anxiety among parents over whether pupils will be able to go back to school full-time.

However, a comprehensive financial package is being brought to Cabinet on Monday and detailed guidance will issue shortly afterward to all schools on how to reopen safely.

Health authorities say the Covid-19 infection rate has stabilised and that we’re “absolutely on track” to reopen schools. So, it’s looking good that schools will reopen to all pupils.

So what exactly will be in Monday’s school reopening plan?

A financial package worth hundreds of millions of euro is being finalised, according to well-placed sources.

It will include extra funding for hundreds of additional substitute teachers and special needs assistants. This is in light of the fact that staff are being advised not to turn up for work if they have Covid-19 symptoms.

There will also be funding for enhancing cleaning and hygiene routines. Hand sanister and personal protective equipment is being sourced centrally and will be distributed to schools. The cost of this between now and the end of the year is estimated to be about €50 million-plus.

There are also plans to assist principals by providing them with administrative assistance to prepare for reopening.

In addition, there will be detailed guidelines for schools, with templates on safe classroom layouts, along with rules to follow in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak.

Teachers’ unions have sounded the alarm over the health risks of returning to unsafe settings. Will their members return to the classroom?

Schools are workplaces and employ about 100,000 teachers and support staff. Buy-in from unions will be critical to reopening schools on a full-time basis.

While there have been headlines that teachers’ unions will not return to unsafe schools, a closer reading of what they are actually saying is that they will return as long as public health rules are fully adhered to.

The unions have played a key role in shaping the steps to be announced on Monday such as providing extra substitution and supervision cover and funding for schools to ensure guidelines are implemented.

So, it seems likely that teachers will support reopening plans – subject to these additional measures being in place.

Where will schools hire these additional substitute teachers if there’s currently a teacher supply “crisis”?

At primary level, plans have focused on hiring panels of teachers on a full-time basis across the State who would be available to provide cover at very short notice. By employing these substitutes on a full-time basis, it should improve the availability of teachers.

At second level, it is more challenging. There are acute shortages of teachers in key subjects such as Irish and science.

One option being looked at is allowing surplus primary school substitutes to work as secondary teachers on a part-time basis in some subjects. For example, all primary teachers require a good level of Irish, so many could provide cover as second-level Irish teachers.

In addition, many teachers who would normally teach in the Middle East are likely to be at home this year, which should boost numbers.

Why is it is so important to get children back in school?

A growing body of research points to the importance of face-to-face education for younger students, in particular.

A legacy of the pandemic so far has been that online learning has not been successful for many children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities.

Schools are also hugely important for children’s mental health and social development.

What does science say about how safe it is to reopen?

It is still early stages, but the latest research indicates that children do not get sick with coronavirus as often as adults. In cases where they do get sick, they are much less likely to get seriously ill. There is growing evidence that younger children – especially aged 10 and under – are less likely to spread the virus than older children.

What can we learn from other countries?

Denmark is seen as a case study in reopening schools safely. It brought its youngest students back last April. There were no reported cases in schools and no increase in cases in their community. They subsequently brought back older children.

However, Israel is an example of where things can go wrong. It reopened schools in early May with small groups and shortly afterwards relaxed class size restrictions and other safety measures. Within weeks, it was reported that there were outbreaks in more than 100 schools and a total of about 240-plus positive tests among students and teachers.

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