It will take more than €10 per pupil, per week to keep schools open

With one month to go, there is a mammoth task ahead for schools to reconfigure buildings, fit sanitisation stations and make pupils aware of new protocols

Ireland has the largest primary school classes in Europe, with an average of 25 pupils per class in contrast to the EU average of 20. Photograph: iStock

Ireland has the largest primary school classes in Europe, with an average of 25 pupils per class in contrast to the EU average of 20. Photograph: iStock

 

The sudden closure of our schools in the middle of March was a shock to the system for parents, pupils and teachers. Decades of under-investment in education meant that there were no provisions or advance planning for such an event. With no initial indication of whether the closure would last for days, weeks or months, and with little in the way of guidance, teachers and principals rolled up their sleeves and showed incredible resourcefulness in adapting to the challenge of continuing education, albeit in an adjusted format, for their pupils.

We have always said that teachers would be ready and willing to return to school buildings when it was safe to do so and that any decision to reopen our schools had to be led by public health advice. It is fortunate for the Government that the public health advice didn’t recommend the reopening of schools prior to the summer break as the lack of resources after decades of neglect would have made it impossible.

When the country entered lockdown the vulnerable suffered most of all. Hundreds of teachers in Deis schools drove around their school communities delivering essential school meals, many other educators had to spend days parked outside public buildings to access enough broadband to connect with their students remotely, families of children with special educational needs received no respite care and many vulnerable children began to disengage from learning until thousands of teachers signed up for summer provision schemes to help them reconnect with learning.

The wellbeing of everyone in the school community will need to be prioritised and particular supports for the most vulnerable will need to be put in place.

The guidance published by the Department of Education on Monday at least gives some clarity to schools about the measures they will need to implement for the start of the school year. There is a mammoth task ahead. School boards of management have just a month to reconfigure buildings, erect signage, fit sanitisation stations, train staff, make parents and pupils aware of protocols, designate space in the playgrounds and introduce new routines. The Government’s provision of an aide to assist this will help somewhat, but the challenge will still remain. The start of the school year will involve more than the usual new-class orientation. Pupils will have to learn a new routine that involves sanitisation, “pods” and “bubbles” before any focus on the curriculum.

All of this must be done against a backdrop of an already challenged system. Ireland has the largest primary school classes in Europe, with an average of 25 pupils per class in contrast to the EU average of 20. We have a large number of teaching principals who juggle a busy administrative workload with teaching a class or multiple classes. These principals will undoubtedly face a greater workload at the start of this school year. The provision of a day per week for teaching principals to focus on their many administrative tasks is something that we have long sought and is a measure that will be particularly welcome in light of the additional workload this year to ensure our schools are safe.

Under review

There will, understandably, be nervousness and anxiety among some staff, parents and pupils about returning to school. There are staff and pupils throughout the country with serious underlying health conditions. The wellbeing of everyone in the school community will need to be prioritised and particular supports for the most vulnerable will need to be put in place.

The additional funding announced by the Government sounds impressive, but when it’s shared out across the school system, it will amount to less than €10 per pupil per week. This funding is intended to cover everything, including the additional cost of substitute teachers. It is a positive start and should ensure the safe reopening of schools, but we hope that the Government will not just “set it and forget it”. We must keep the situation under review and ensure that the guidance, and the funding to support it, will be reviewed before the end of September so that any additional funds can be allocated when Budget 2021 is announced.

The Covid-19 crisis has hopefully shed a light on aspects of our education system that can, and must, change for the better. Smaller classes, substitute supply panels, principal’s release days, targeted teaching and therapeutic supports for vulnerable children and additional funding for our schools are all within reach, and within the gift of our Government to provide. It is unfortunate that it has taken a crisis to progress some of these issues, but let us take the lessons and never again look upon education as an expense, but instead consider it to be an investment in the future.

John Boyle is general secretary of the INTO

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