The Irish Times view on reopening schools

Unprecedented funding but worrying signs some supports are lacking

Individual desks have been positioned for social distancing in a classroom in Italy, as preparations for the start of the school year. Most Irish schools are due to reopen over the coming days.  Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/ EPA/

Individual desks have been positioned for social distancing in a classroom in Italy, as preparations for the start of the school year. Most Irish schools are due to reopen over the coming days. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/ EPA/

 

The importance of reopening schools cannot be over-stated. Children have been out of the classroom for six months. A growing body of research points to the Covid-19 closures having a much more severe impact on students’ learning and motivation in disadvantaged schools. In many cases, children with disabilities and additional needs have regressed and lost key skills.

The reopening of schools from this week is a hugely positive development. Pupils will get a chance to see their friends and to settle back into an academic routine. Teachers will get to engage with their students face-to-face. Families will be relieved of the burden of home-schooling.

The Government has made unprecedented levels of funding available in a €375 million school reopening fund. That will enable the provision of hundreds of additional substitute teachers, supervisors and equipment essential to addressing Covid-19-related issues. There are, however, worrying signs that many schools do have not all the support they need to get their classrooms ready.

A survey from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland indicates that almost half of secondary schools in the State are having problems hiring builders to carry out works to allow for Covid-19 physical distancing requirements. Some of these are struggling to accommodate pupils in class. Many also report that they still have not received deliveries of personal protective equipment.

The continued operation of schools will stand or fall on their ability to ensure safety measures are fully implemented

The Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation have also raised concerns that teachers with conditions such as cancer, heart problems and diabetes, have been refused the option of staying at home. Many parents say they have been confused over a lack of clarity regarding the detail of new school regimes. It is also unclear how children with special needs will receive additional support given restrictions such as physical distancing which apply to special needs assistants.

It is vital that these issues are resolved swiftly to ensure schools can reopen in a way that protects the health and safety of all in so far as possible. At the end of the day, the continued operation of schools will stand or fall on their ability to ensure safety measures are fully implemented. The closure of schools and a return to distance learning will inevitably lead to a widening of the digital divide between the haves and have-nots and give rise to lasting damage to student outcomes. It is in everyone’s interest that this is avoided.

Schools are vitally important to society and it is unfortunate that many of us only fully appreciated their worth as a result of their closure. They are settings where imaginations are fired, where friendships are formed and where future citizens are moulded. We have missed them hugely and everything possible must be done to keep them open.