Teachers alarmed at plan to reopen schools without social distancing

Teachers’ unions concerned at full-time return via ‘class bubble’ instead of social distancing

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has said that children returning to work for two or three days a week in September is "not a runner". Video: RTÉ

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Government plans to fully reopen all schools by September using “class bubbles” with no requirement for social distancing between pupils have caused alarm among teachers and principals.

The new drive for a resumption of full-time education will mean a radical departure from current public health advice.

But Minister for Education Joe McHugh insisted the guidelines, to be published later this month, will not put the health of school staff at risk.

A Department of Education study brought to Cabinet on Friday argued even if the current two-metre distancing requirement was reduced to one metre, primary school students would still only be allowed to attend school for 2½ days out of five.

In secondary schools, certain year groups would be able to attend only 50 per cent of the time. Under the current two-metre rule, pupils in primary schools could only attend one day a week, while secondary students could attend for two days.

Depriving pupils

Mr McHugh grounded his argument on a dramatic departure from the current rules by saying depriving children of full-time education in September would possibly have a very negative impact on their development.

“If we just bring back school at 20 per cent, or 50 per cent [capacity] we could potentially do more damage due to educational neglect and regression as a consequence of that.”

Class bubbles would not mix with others and physical distancing requirements would only apply in other parts of schools such as yards.

Mr McHugh’s push for full resumption could put the Government on a collision course with public health advice.

Some parents and opposition parties complained his comments sparked confusion and gave conflicting signals about the relaxation of social distancing rules.

‘Classrooms are workplaces’

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said parents and teachers were at a loss following the announcement. “Firstly, they are telling us how many children would return to school with one metre, and then telling us that social distancing is not a runner in schools.”

Teachers’ unions warned any deviation from public health advice would be “unacceptable”.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) criticised the reopening plans as “odd and alarming”, saying they paid “insufficient attention to public health advice”.

“Classrooms are workplaces – crowded ones at that. These workplaces cannot be treated as if they enjoy some magical immunity from the risk that characterises other workplaces,” TUI president Séamus Laharte said.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland said it would be very concerned if physical distancing in schools deviated from what existed in wider society.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said there is was a need for clearer guidance and protocols for teachers over the coming weeks, while the Irish Primary Principals’ Network also said it was disappointed at the lack of definitive guidelines and clarity.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government was retaining the current travel restrictions, which require 14 days’ quarantine, but would review them in two weeks’ time. He raised the possibility of establishing “air bridges” with other EU countries which have suppressed the virus.

There were 13 new cases of Covid-19 and three deaths reported on Friday.

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