The Irish Times view on reopening schools: it’s time for clarity and certainty

With just a month to go before the new academic year, students, parents, teachers and principals remain in the dark over detailed plans for reopening schools safely

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Education Norma Foley at a press conference at the Department of Education on Friday morning. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Education Norma Foley at a press conference at the Department of Education on Friday morning. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

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It’s not every day the Taoiseach sweeps into the Department of Education seeking a detailed briefing on plans to reopen schools. He could have had a private one-on-one meeting in Government Buildings, a quiet chat after Cabinet or a discussion over the phone. That wasn’t the point, though. His meeting with Minister for Education Norma Foley and senior officials at the department was all about optics.

With just a month to go to the reopening of schools, the Government is desperate to regain control of a narrative which has slipped away from it over recent weeks. A lack of clarity from the department over whether schools will fully reopen in September has led to a growing sense of anxiety among parents over the liklihood of pupils being able to go back to the classroom full-time. Students, teachers, principals and support staff remain in the dark as to how it is planned to reopen schools safely.

Opposition politicians have happily stepped into the void, upping the ante over the continuing uncertainty, and it was in that context that the Taoiseach sought on Friday to reassure the wider school community. His message was simple: reopening schools fully for all pupils is the Government’s number one priority – and a detailed plan will emerge next week.

That plan will need to be bold if schools are to function on a full-time basis, while also taking necessary steps to help keep Covid-19 out of the classroom. Enhanced substitution cover will be crucial to enable schools to function when teachers are sick; huge investment will be needed for new cleaning and hygiene regimes; principals will need administrative support to help plan for reopening; schools will need funds to upgrade classrooms or washing facilities; the curriculum will need to be adapted to take account of loss of learning. The cost of these measures alone is likely to run into hundreds of millions of euro.

The importance of reopening schools fully in late August cannot be over stated. Children have lost out on up to four months of education and a growing body of research from the ESRI and elsewhere 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 have also regressed and lost key skills. A return to distance learning in the autumn would inevitably lead to a widening of the digital divide between the haves and have-nots and give rise to lasting damage tostudent outcomes. Teachers also have a right and expectation to return to a safe workplace where every available measure has been taken to protect them.

It is vital that the Government does its homework properly ahead of next week’s reopening plan. It has a difficult balance to strike with just weeks to go before the new academic year.

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