Pupils will not be required to wear face masks in class under public health guidelines to be issued to schools this week, it is understood.
While face coverings are not regarded as suitable at primary level, secondary school students will have the option of wearing them if they wish in cases where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.
Similarly, teachers will not be required to wear face masks, as they conceal facial expression and can make communication difficult. However, they may be used in cases where physical distancing is not possible in classrooms or where a teacher is involved in prolonged close contact with pupils.
The recommendations are contained in public health guidance for the State’s 4,000 primary and schools, which will be issued following a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
Minister for Education Norma Foley is due to seek approval at Cabinet for a financial package in excess of €350 million aimed at fully opening all schools on a full-time basis from late August.
The package is understood to include hundreds of additional teachers and alterations to classrooms, along with administrative supports for principals. In addition, it is expected there will be additional guidance counsellors and psychologists hired to help support students’ wellbeing.
It will include a range of provisions for special education schools, including an enhanced cleaning grant worth about €4 million, and each special school will get a budget for a staff member specifically focused on return to school planning.
Sources have indicated that the curriculum will be adjusted to take account of learning loss since the closure of schools, with greater choice of questions in State exams.
There will be less emphasis on sharing learning materials and, for classes such as transition year, less emphasis on work experience or putting students in situations where they could be exposed to coronavirus.
The reopening guidance to schools is expected to include templates for safe classroom layouts and guidance on how to maintain physical distancing between pupils of different ages. The advice on social distancing will see different rules apply, depending on the age of pupils.
No social distancing will be required for younger primary pupils – junior infants to second class – on the basis that it is difficult to enforce and that emerging research indicates these children are less likely to transmit the virus.
Older primary pupils will be kept in separate pods in each classroom, with desks spaced at least 1m apart.
Second-level students will have to remain at least 1m apart, and 2m where possible.
The guidelines will state that all available space should be availed of to maximise physical distancing and that lockers or store cupboards should be removed from classrooms if necessary.
At second level, the advice is that double classes should be planned where possible – to limit movement – and that cohorts of students should remain together where possible.
Teachers’ desks should be one to two metres away from pupils, in both primary and secondary schools.
Schools will also be advised to consider staggered drop-off or pick-up times for children where possible, to avoid crowds.
In relation to drop-off of forgotten items such as books or lunch boxes, schools are advised to have designated delivery points that will not require interactions with staff.
Outside of the measures to be announced on Monday, the department is examining ways to increase the number of substitute teachers available to provide sick leave cover. Policies under consideration include offering increased hours to part-time or job-sharing teachers, as well as increased flexibility in the recognition of qualifications achieved abroad, and placements from teacher training colleges.