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Fintan O’Toole: Lack of preparation for reopening schools is terrifying

With just five weeks to go, the Department of Education has no ‘clear picture’ of what is needed

Minister for Education Norma Foley: There is still no roadmap for reopening schools. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

One of the advantages Ireland has in dealing with the pandemic is the ability to see into the future. What is happening in Asia now will happen to us in August or September. And one of the things that is happening there has huge implications for what we will be doing in those months: reopening schools.

Public health policy here has assumed that children don't spread the virus much. But in South Korea, one of the countries that has dealt best with the crisis, evidence has emerged that, while children under 10 were half as likely as adults were to spread Covid-19, children over 10 are "even more likely to infect others than adults were".

Opening schools that have been closed since March 12th is the single most important thing the Government has to do. Children are suffering and the most vulnerable are suffering most. A survey of more than 700 second-level teachers by researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that students in disadvantaged secondary schools are three times more likely to have disengaged from their teachers during the lockdown. The picture is unlikely to be any brighter for primary school kids.

Any decision to close schools will be made on public health advice, according to the Department of Education. “There is no such advice at this point,” a spokesmans said.

The Government is faced with an excruciating dilemma. There are two absolute imperatives: to control the pandemic and to get children and young people back into the classroom. But it is extremely difficult to do both and the news from South Korea makes it even harder. If kids over 10 are more infective than adults, putting them together indoors in the same rooms for hours on end is no less dangerous than doing the same with grown-ups. If the Dáil can’t sit in Leinster House, how can kids sit in a classroom?


As of now, Foley and her department can't tell the parents of a million children how the school day will work

Child welfare, social justice and economic recovery on the one side and public health on the other exert equal and opposite pressures. Balancing the different risks demands a massive national effort to reconfigure schoolrooms, to build temporary classrooms and install new toilets, to recruit extra staff for teaching and cleaning and to provide huge amounts of protective and sanitary equipment. This effort has to be on the same scale as the radical and urgent reorganisation of hospitals at the start of the pandemic.

But there is no sign of any such plan. Schools are due to reopen in just five weeks. In the last week of May, we were told that “a roadmap for the reopening schools from late August will be ready within a fortnight”. We still don’t have it.

Last Thursday, the new Minister for Education Norma Foley was in the Dáil, presenting her department's annual estimates. Here are her own words. Read them and weep: "I should explain that the revised estimate presented today does not include any provision in relation to Covid-19 at this stage… it is my intention that the exceptional funding requirements of the education and skills sector for this year… will need to be addressed as part of the supplementary estimates process. This will allow a clear picture as to the scale of the investment needed in the sector to ensure that it is adequately funded to respond to the unprecedented challenges that currently exist in our schools..."

So, as of last Thursday evening, the department not only had no budget for the radical changes that need to be made in schools, it had, by its own account, no “clear picture” of the scale of investment and action required. If there are no estimates of cost, it can only be because the department has not done the detailed work that would identify what each school needs. In its misnamed Planning for Re-Opening Schools document of June 12th, the department pretty much says this: “It is not feasible, from a cost, sustainability or delivery perspective, to identify and implement the additional classroom capacity (through pre-fabricated units, construction work) across each school.”

What does “not feasible” mean in the context of a national emergency? This is too hard so we’re not doing it. Is that it?

‘As normal’

As of now, Foley and her department can’t tell the parents of a million children how the school day will work, how many hours or days children will attend, where the extra space will be, what will happen with PPE and sanitation, what immunocompromised children, parents or teachers are supposed to do, how transport will operate, or what happens after a pupil or teacher tests positive.

Monica Hickey, 5th class teacher, and Matt Melvin, school principal, at St Etchen’s National School, Kinnegad, Co Westmeath in a classroom that can now accommodate 20 pupils according to the HSE guidelines on social distancing in schools. Photograph: Alan Betson

This is, frankly, terrifying. The underlying condition of Irish education is the history of church control that makes schools private entities. We saw what happened in March and April in an analogous situation – privately-owned nursing homes were left to their own devices with lethal results. Are we about to do this again with schools?

Scariest of all is this simple sentence from Foley last week: “I am absolutely committed to the goal of reopening our primary and post-primary schools as normal at the end of the summer.” As normal – can there be two more dangerously deluded words? It is, literally, old-school thinking. We can’t send our children back into a world that has vanished. The Government seems to be leading us into a great national test without having done its homework. The results cannot be good.