Department of Education focused on September reopening of schools, says Holohan

Parents’ group hopes public health advice will be under constant review over coming weeks

Pupils attend a class at Basisschool De Valke in Lichtervelde in Belgium on Friday as schools test the reopening and start again for a limited number of grades on Monday. Photograph: Kurt Desplenter/Belga/AFP

The chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said the Department of Education is focused on a September return for schools and he does "not anticipate" they will open before that date.

Dr Holohan said he was aware of the situation in Denmark where primary schools have been open for a month and the reproduction rate of the Covid-19 virus continues to decline and "it will help us in our understanding of the disease".

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has also been looking at the experiences of other countries where schools have started to reopen.

These include France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany where pupils returned to the classrooms this week.

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Dr Holohan said other countries were at different stages of the disease to Ireland.

"We are aware that many countries in mainland Europe have their experience of this infection commencing earlier," he said.

“You can’t compare the timetable between different countries. Infectious diseases are spread in waves across geographic regions. We have to respond to when we have the infection.

“We have to respond in terms of the easing of restrictions at a point where we think we have the infection controlled to the stage that we now do. Different countries have arrived at that stage at different times,” he said.

"If you look at countries like Spain, they had a much bigger challenge that we did. Measures that are similar will happen at different stages in different countries and appropriately so."

Parents' representatives have called for primary schools to be reopened as soon as possible in line with public health advice.

The National Parents’ Council - Primary said it hoped public health advice would be kept under constant review over the coming weeks.

“Our view is that schools should return as soon as possible for certain cohorts, such as children in transition, in line with public health advice,” said Áine Lynch, the council’s chief executive.

“If it is possible for those cohorts to return for a limited period of time in June, that would be great, but only following the advice.”

There have been growing calls this week among parent groups on social media for schools to reopen earlier than planned.

They were prompted in part by the reopening of schools across a number of European countries this week and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comments that resuming school was “among the safest things” the State could do over the coming months. However, speaking at the press conference in Government Buildings on Friday announcing the beginning of the lifting of restrictions, Mr Varadkar said there were no plans to bring schools back before September.

Ms Lynch said the council was receiving many calls from parents who either supported reopening schools earlier or were worried about the prospect of doing so.

“There is a cohort who are very anxious about it . . . we’re also hearing from many who are worried about their children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Even with the same parents, some feel are feeling both of these things,” she said.

There are 128 reported cases of Covid-19 in newborns to four years old in the State, 266 cases among five- to 14-year-olds and 1,688 cases in those aged between 15 and 24.

Dr Holohan said next week NPHET will look at how children can be helped through the pandemic.

The team is aware that “the burden on them has been particularly challenging and difficult”, he explained.

At the Cabinet meeting on Friday confirming that some restrictions will be lifted, the Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath raised the issue of school reopenings and asked that those playing golf - allowed during phase one - be allowed travel further than the current 5km limit do to so.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times