At Lisnagelvin Primary School in Derry, principal Colin Torrens has been doing the sums. His dilemma: how to fit 600 pupils, usually divided into classes of 27-30, plus their teacher, into classrooms measuring 60 square metres while keeping the students one metre apart?
“If you took all of the desks out of the classroom and had the children standing one metre apart you could probably get a class in,” said Torrens.
Given that desks are made for two, he has worked out that at “one metre you can get four rows of four, that’s 16 desks a metre apart. So you can only get 16 children.”
The plan announced on Thursday to reopen the North’s schools from August 24th, initially for pupils in their final primary school year, Year 7 (age 10-11), and also in key examination years at second level, Year 12 (age 15-16) and Year 14 (age 17-18), is predicated on one metre distance between pupils, and two metres between teachers and students. Classes up to Year 10 (age 13-14) will subsequently also form protective “bubbles”.
This, according to the North's First Minister, Arlene Foster, would "allow the school attendance pattern to return close to normality" – an assertion which was quickly challenged by schools.
"So long as there's any reference at all to social distancing, there's no way you're getting any more than half in the normal sized classroom," says Chris Donnelly, principal of St John the Baptist Primary School in west Belfast.
“That has to be out there, because parents and workplaces can’t now be thinking because of what was said there’s going to be a return to normal classes. The only way that’s going to happen is if they abandon social distancing.”
According to the official guidance, where social distancing “cannot reasonably be applied . . . a ‘protective bubble’ strategy can be adopted.”
However, the document also acknowledges that it may not be possible for every school to accommodate all pupils in September, and where there is insufficient space to meet social distancing requirements year groups will be split and will follow a “blended pattern of education” with a minimum of two days per week in school.
Schools will also be expected to use “all available space” within their buildings. “So you’ve 16 in the classroom with the teacher and you send the other 14 down to the hall, who teaches them?” asks Torrens.
“There are only a finite amount of staff in each school and they all have their own classroom, so if he [the Minister for Education Peter Weir] wants every child back he has to provide 11,000 schools in this province with double the amount of tables and double the staff,” says Torrens.
Clearly much will depend on the circumstances of individual schools. Ballyhackett Primary School in Castlerock, Co Derry, has only 30 pupils spread across three classes. For principal Grainne McIlvar, there was relief that she will be able to accommodate all her students from August 24th, though she adds that there are still questions over transport and school meals.
At St Mary’s College, a girls’ post-primary school in Derry, acting principal Brendan McGinn has been measuring the available space. This includes using study areas for teaching, and collapsing partitions between classrooms.
It is unlikely, he says, that younger pupils will be back full-time in September. “I don’t see a natural fit at the moment, and we need to see more detail on it.”
Donnelly agrees. He has already “commandeered” the parish hall next to his school, and he is considering moving two classes into the dinner hall.