Coronavirus: Call to partially reopen primary schools in June

National Parents’ Council Primary urges review, but Harris rules out sixth-class return

Dr Tony Holohan: Department of Education is focused on a September return for schools. Photograph: Getty

Dr Tony Holohan: Department of Education is focused on a September return for schools. Photograph: Getty

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Parents’ representatives have called for primary schools to be partially reopened in mid-June if it is safe to do so.

Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents’ Council Primary, said the decision to keep schools closed until September was made at a time when public health conditions were worse than they are now.

She called on public health authorities to keep official advice under constant review to consider whether schools could open to sixth-class students, for example, in mid-June. Ms Lynch said these students face a big transition to second-level education and would benefit from school support, if it is safe to do so.

Moreover, she said it would allow public health authorities to measure the potential impact on infection rates of a return to school.

“We’re seeing what’s happening other jurisdictions,” said Ms Lynch. “We hope that rather than leaving it to phase five of the roadmap, the National Public Health Emergency Team continually reviews the advice to see if something can be done earlier.”

However, Minister for Health Simon Harris has ruled out sixth-class primary school returning to the classroom before going on to second level.

“The short answer is no,” said Mr Harris via social media.

Some parents have requested that older children be allowed return to school to aid their transition to second level and also because they could understand physical distancing.

In a video posted on YouTube, Mr Harris said: “We are planning on getting our schools open for the new school year. They won’t open before that.”

He acknowledged that many schools will be scheduling virtual graduations in lieu of traditional end-of-year events.

“I know how difficult this has been . . . I do promise you this, that there will be brighter days ahead . . . hopefully, you will get to see your friends in some guise over the summer months.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy on Covid-19 has said it is now time to think about reopening schools in Ireland.

Dr David Nabarro said he remains hopeful a vaccine can be found but that in the meantime getting used to living with the virus is going to be the new normal.

Keeping children home from school for too long can have long-term effects on their development, he warned, speaking to Newstalk Breakfast.

“You have to balance the risk. Children staying at home, missing school – that is going to have a long-term impact on their future ability to earn and to be strong in society . . . children, although they can get the virus, are not anything like as important at spreading the virus as some other members of the population. So we have got to give it a try,” he said.

However, Dr Nabarro said before schools reopen teachers must be confident they can manage the return to school and that children understand social distancing.

Schools had reopened in other countries while managing to keep students and staff safe, he said.

“So, I am thinking the time has come, especially as you have got the numbers of cases being suppressed and you have got the defences building up, the time has come to gradually start reopening schools.”

Given Ireland’s progress on suppressing the virus to date, Dr Nabarro said it was likely there were going to be people in Government who will start thinking “very, very seriously” that schools could be reopened soon.

September return

But he added that he had to be careful not to “overstep” his remit as a WHO representative.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Department of Health said it was still planning for schools to reopen and operate in September, in line with public health advice.

“Engagement is underway with stakeholders in the education sector to develop contingency plans for the re-opening and operation of schools in an environment that may require social distancing and other public health requirements,” the spokesman said.

“This work will be based on the national return to work safely protocol and will also be informed by guidance and experience from other jurisdictions. A core objective of the contingency plans will be to ensure that schools and other education settings can re-open and operate in a safe manner that is consistent with public health advice.”

Earlier this month, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the Department of Education is focused on a September return for schools and that he does “not anticipate” they will open before that date.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on May 13th that “among the safest things” the State can do in the coming months is to reopen schools for children, raising fresh questions over the timeline for reopening schools and childcare facilities.

The document says pupils may end up having to physically attend school on a limited basis, such as every other day or every other week, and learn remotely on the remaining days. An extended week is also mooted as a possibility.