Reopening schools – where’s the plan?

 

Sir, – Linda Connolly’s balanced, sensible and thought-provoking article nails the difficulties surrounding the safe reopening of schools (“Is it sensible to fully reopen schools?”, Opinion & Analysis, August 19th). In light of the new recommendations announced on Tuesday, it is clear that an extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance seems to be operating in this crucial phase of the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

On the one hand, the Government is telling us that we are in a very grave situation where it is necessary to introduce fresh restrictions, including no indoor household gatherings of groups of more that six individuals from a maximum of three households, and on the other hand ploughing ahead with an extraordinary experiment which will see 1.2 million individuals return to schools where groups of 30 pupils from perhaps 30 different households will be crammed together in confined spaces for at least five hours a day.

In fact, given that a significant number of children move between at least two homes in instances of marital breakdown and new family groupings, and also spend extended time with grandparents in after-school care, the maths become deeply concerning.

I commend the Government for its decisiveness on school closures; although it has created difficulties, it was a necessary tool in the Government’s strategy and helped “flatten the curve” during this pandemic. It was in line with best practice in other European countries and mercifully appears to have yielding results.

A side-effect, however, is that it has thrown into sharp relief the realities of educational disadvantage in Irish primary schooling.

Schools and teachers scrambled to respond creatively, effectively and professionally to the imperative of ensuring continuity of education for primary schoolchildren during this unprecedented crisis.

The Department of Education unsurprisingly prioritised the use of technology and remote teaching as a viable means of doing so. Yet schools working with the most marginalised pupils know that lack of access to technology and broadband for these children has now potentially further widened the gap between these children’s educational attainment and those of their peers.

The Government has had since last March to develop a cogent, properly resourced, detailed plan for the safe reopening of schools and it has failed to do so. This should have involved planning for a blended model which is thoroughly reflexive and responsive and future-proofed for the ongoing challenges posed in managing education during this pandemic.

The OECD report Education at a Glance 2019 shows that Irish primary school classes are some of the largest in Europe and funding is far behind that of other European countries. It demonstrated that primary schools in Ireland remain overcrowded and underfunded compared to European counterparts. The average class size in Irish primary schools is 25 compared to the EU average of 20 pupils per class. In reality, an analysis of data published by the Department of Education in 2019 shows that nearly 20 per cent of primary school pupils were in classes that were overcrowded, with one in five pupils in classes of 30 or more, with six primary schools having classrooms of 40 or more pupils.

Irish teachers and parents watched very closely the reopening of schools in Denmark, the first European country to do so, and looked in amazement at the measures it was able to put in place at short notice to observe social distancing. It was startling to see the images of what “half” a primary class looks like in Denmark and which reflects the sustained investment that the Danes have made in their primary school system.

Irish parents are watching very closely how the Government approaches the reopening of Irish schools, given the nature of large class sizes and the inadequate accommodation that many schoolchildren already put up with on a daily basis, and many are very alarmed.

The Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure the safety of each and every single child and each and every single teacher when schools reopen. But this is not just about school safety, it is about the safety of the wider society. Children appear to be at a low risk themselves from the virus but they may put the adults they are in close contact with at very serious risk.

The scientific advice which informed the school closures in the first place has to be equally to the forefront when reopening schools.

In answer to Linda Connolly’s question as to whether it is sensible to reopen schools fully in the manner in which the Government is proposing, the answer has to be a resounding no! – Yours, etc,

EIBHLIN

CAMPBELL, M Ed,

Dundrum,

Dublin 16.

Sir, – The schools are due to reopen in the coming weeks. What are the NPHET recommendations and Government plans for the safety and protection of the thousands of older people or vulnerable people who have school-going children living permanently with them or who of necessity will be minding school-going children? – Yours, etc,

BRIAN McGRATH,

Leixlip

Co Kildare.