Breda O’Brien: School reopening is almost impossible to plan

Principals need guidance and funds to help pupils as social distance rules likely to shift

One of the key reasons for going back to school is to resume productive interaction. Social distancing will make pair work and group work almost impossible.

One of the key reasons for going back to school is to resume productive interaction. Social distancing will make pair work and group work almost impossible.

 

Principals and deputy principals all around the country are wondering how on earth they are going to re-open their schools at the end of August. While everyone is anxious to facilitate a return to face-to face teaching, the logistics are challenging. Meanwhile, the recent reopening of UK primary schools was a shambles. In the first week, only 52 per cent managed to reopen and only 11 per cent of pupils attended. Several schools reopened and had to close again immediately for deep cleaning because a pupil or teacher was infected. 

Irish principals and deputy principals have been working flat out since the lockdown and there is no end in sight. They are currently supervising calculated grades for Leaving Certs, which is an unprecedented pressure even if few parents are attempting to lobby.

Many of them would in other years have the timetable for next year done or mostly done. A normal timetable makes three-dimensional Sudoku look like a snap. Not only is the timetable not ready, but principals have no idea what kind of timetable to formulate.

There has been vague talk of teachers broadcasting their classes as they teach. How? Teaching is not lecturing

For example, while it will be very, very difficult for primary schools to reopen, there is one teacher and perhaps a special needs assistant or two per class. In secondary schools with 40-minute class periods, pupils can have nine different teachers in a single day, and no two days of the week are alike. Even in schools with one-hour periods, students will have up to six teachers.

Experts currently believe that, under existing guidelines, schools will only be able to have 50 per cent of their student body in the building at one time. 

Some subjects have three periods a week, like history. It is conceivable that if one half of a year is in the school on alternate days, a class might end up with one period in a subject.

The complications do not end there. What about the other half who are at home? There has been vague talk of teachers broadcasting (or more accurately, narrowcasting) their classes as they teach.

How? Teaching is not lecturing. In theory, you could set a camera in a lecture theatre and the lecture could be delivered from one point.

At second level, a teacher talking for 40 minutes or an hour is a very bad class. Students should be active, interacting with the material, each other and the teacher. Good luck with capturing that with one iPad perched on the teacher’s desk.

Schools are not set up to work in this way. They do not have the necessary equipment and some do not even have decent broadband. While online teaching was very demanding and no one wants to go back to it, at least it did not involve engaging with pupils in the classroom while also teaching remotely.

One of the key reasons for going back is to resume productive interaction. Social distancing will make standard classroom strategies like pair work and group work almost impossible. Imagine a migraine-inducing situation where students are merrily yelling at each other from a two-metre distance in the classroom.

Obviously, the 50 per cent who will apparently be at home watching on devices will be very disadvantaged and the pace at which material can be covered will slow to a crawl. 

For those in school, what happens at break and lunchtime? Do students stay in a classroom? How do they visit the toilets? Most schools do not have sufficient toilets to allow for queuing in a socially distanced fashion.

I know schools where heating is rationed in the depths of winter because the school cannot afford it. How will they pay for all the additional costs of hand sanitiser, soap, hot water and face masks for staff and so on?

What happens if a teacher or student contracts Covid-19? Teachers and students have underlying conditions, too. Testing and tracing are still not up to speed after months of undelivered promises.

When I wrote recently about my fears for incoming first years, third years and most importantly, sixth years, I was inundated with comments from people annoyed that I had forgotten the particular difficulties facing transition years and second years. Transition year normally involves extensive interaction with the community, for example.

Schools need clear guidance, additional staff and financial assistance. And they need it now

While it is a concession that classroom-based assessments have been modified for third years, much more certainty is needed about what accommodations will be provided for sixth years in terms of adjusted exams and course work.

It already looks like two-metre social distancing is unsustainable for the retail and hospitality industries. I suspect it will be rapidly reduced to one metre and then disappear altogether. (Whether or not that will lead to a second wave of Covid-19 is another day’s work.)

Yet principals and deputies in schools who are already exhausted will spend weeks preparing plans on the basis that social distancing will still exist. Are they supposed to prepare Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C for various contingencies ranging from full social distancing to one metre to none? They will get no break whatsoever. It is poor thanks for all they have given already. They need clear guidance, additional staff and financial assistance. And they need it now.

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