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Schools need to know what is expected of them before they can reopen

The decision to prioritise children with additional needs and vulnerable children for face-to-face learning is the right one

The divisive tone of some commentary on school reopenings in recent weeks is not serving our children well. Reading some accounts, you might be tempted to think that teachers and others working in school settings are not aware of the impact of school closures on children with additional needs or vulnerable children. In fact, teachers are acutely aware of the serious negative impact of school closures on their students. Not just the loss of knowledge and skills development, but also the negative impacts on children’s wellbeing and health.

You might also think that partially reopening schools for children with additional needs during a pandemic was a simple exercise - similar maybe to opening a supermarket but keeping one section closed. In reality for voluntary boards of management to select some children and some staff to engage in face-to-face learning while others work or learn from home at the very height of a pandemic, when the need is so acute and anxiety already high, requires careful planning, cooperation and a clear understanding of the risks, rights and responsibilities of all.

The decision to prioritise children with additional needs and vulnerable children for face-to-face learning is the right one and the government and Department of Education are to be commended for their determination to enable these children to return as soon as possible. And at the same time, it is absolutely right that union representatives should seek to ensure that school staff have adequate protection. Many people - staff, parents, children - are genuinely anxious at the prospect of returning to classrooms where social distancing is simply not possible all of the time, and - at primary level - face coverings are not worn. This is completely understandable given the current levels of Covid.

On 8th January, when the decision was taken to delay the full return to school in order to reduce the mobility of one million people, Covid case numbers were at 8,227 - the highest reported in one day since the pandemic began. Many schools that had outbreaks before Christmas still had children and teachers who were self-isolating, as well as some children, staff and family members ill with Covid. Last Tuesday, when it became clear that the plan for partial reopenings did not yet have the support it needed from unions representing school staff, 92 reported deaths from Covid were reported - the highest number in one day since Coronavirus reached our shores.


We keep hearing that ‘schools are safe’ - and the evidence does indeed show that transmission in schools, both to children and adults, has been very low compared to other settings. But schools are not magically safe by their nature. School principals and staff have ensured they are as safe as they can be through stringent implementation of infection and control measures.

In classrooms for younger childen and children with additional needs, where social distancing is less possible, safety measures rely heavily on keeping Covid out of the school in the first place.Many principals lay awake at night from September to December worrying that a child or staff member would come to school with Covid - either because they were not aware that they have been in contact with the virus, or because they didn’t recognise the seriousness of the need to self-isolate.

As infection rates increased in December, keeping Covid out completely became impossible in communities where infection rates were high, and many principals and staff members were devastated when people in their school communities contracted the virus. Of course this was not because of any fault on their part. Nevertheless many principals became less confident that they could keep their communities safe.

It is not in the power of any school principal or board of management to guarantee absolutely the safety of all the members of their school community. Rather it is their legal responsibility to operate their school in accordance with Department circulars and guidelines. And it is the principal’s professional responsibility to implement those guidelines with leadership and care, and with the needs of their students foremost.

Navigating the business of supporting anxious staff, parents and children through a staggered return at a time of unprecedented levels of infection in the community will be challenging for principals and voluntary school boards, who do not have the same HR and legal supports as the management of hospitals or supermarkets. If schools stray from Department guidelines they risk not just censure, but damaging home-school and staff relations for years to come.

It is therefore necessary for schools to have clarity on what is expected of them before selecting some pupils for face-to-face learning over others, and some staff for higer risk duties over others. That clarity can only be achieved with the support of the unions representing those staff. It can and must be achieved as quickly as possible, but it is not there yet.

Disability groups, children’s rights organisations and others have rightly been highlighting the negative impacts of the pandemic on children with additional needs and their families. School closures are a crucial element of this for many, as are the loss of important therapeutic and other supports. Additionally, many teachers are also concerned about other vulnerable students they are struggling to reach remotely.

Attending school provides vital regular support, routine and relationships for both of these cohorts of children, and it is for this reason that so many people are working so hard to enable them to return to some kind of face-to-face educational provision in their schools as soon as possible.

For that work to be successful, we adults all need to set aside any desire to be right, to win, or to assign blame. We need to listen carefully - to each other, to the quiet voices as well as the louder ones, and especially to those of our children. And when we get through this, we need to radically improve our community and therapeutic services for our most vulnerable children and their families.

Emer Nowlan is chief executive officer of Educate Together