The Irish Times view on schools: We need to keep them open

Safe reopening of schools has been a rare bright spot in the country’s response to Covid-19 pandemic

While the grip of Covid-19 has strengthened elsewhere, evidence from public health experts indicates that schools are not high risk environments for students and staff.  Photograph:  Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

While the grip of Covid-19 has strengthened elsewhere, evidence from public health experts indicates that schools are not high risk environments for students and staff. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

 

The safe reopening and continued operation of schools has been a rare bright spot in the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. While the grip of Covid-19 has strengthened elsewhere, evidence from public health experts indicates that schools are not high-risk environments for students and staff.

The number of positive cases detected in schools has risen in recent weeks, but latest data indicates schools are not amplifying transmission. For example, the proportion of weekly cases among school-aged children did not change before and after schools reopened. In addition, there is a positivity rate among close contacts of detected cases of about 2 per cent in primary and secondary schools compared to 7 per cent in the wider community, according to the HSE.

The fact that the spread of Covid-19 is not being accelerated by the attendance of children at school is testament to the enormous effort and energy placed into keeping them safe. The Government deserves credit too for providing significant investment to support necessary infection prevention and control measures.

Yet principals, teachers and students can only do so much. Keeping children in the classroom will require a sustained national effort to get community transmission of the virus back under control because, ultimately, that is the only way of keeping it out of the classroom. It will also require a fit-for-purpose testing-and-tracing system which has been sorely lacking to date.

Many schools have expressed understandable frustration over delays in receiving advice on responding to positive cases. Teachers’ unions and principals want faster turn-around times for testing and tracing, along with greater transparency on the exact number of cases that are being detected in school settings. These are reasonable demands to ensure the educational environment remains safe and that there is continued trust in the public health system.

The importance of keeping schools open cannot be overstated. Their closure had hugely adverse consequences for some of the most vulnerable in our community, negatively affecting children’s wellbeing, learning and social development. This widened the education divide due to a lack of access to devices, broadband or quiet study spaces for disadvantaged children. And it undermined the development of children with disabilities and additional needs who in many cases regressed and lost key skills.

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.

In-school tuition is crucial to helping children reach their full potential. Everything possible must be done to keep schools safe and open over the coming months.