Schools will not remain open without significant societal sacrifice

Getting schools open is a nightmare but remaining open is the bigger challenge

Barring an upsurge in coronavirus cases, schools will reopen in four or five weeks’ time. There is a spirit of solidarity and almost grim determination evident in school management and representative bodies to make the impossible possible.

Yes, there is significant risk and sacrifice involved for students and teachers. The decision to reopen has been made on the basis that the alternatives are worse.

There has been a natural focus on the nightmarish logistics of getting schools open. Remaining open is the bigger challenge. For schools to remain open, sacrifices will have to be made by everyone else in society, too.

Schools are going to be hard-pressed to stay open in the absence of immediate testing for teachers and students

The only way the virus can be kept out of schools is if community transmission is low. Conditions will be far from ideal in school. If we are going to ask very young people and their teachers to take these risks, everyone else is going to have to wear masks, practise social distancing and be willing to give up unsafe socialising or going abroad unnecessarily.

Putting it bluntly, teenagers cannot attend heaving house parties and then come to school. There is increasing evidence that teenagers, even without serious symptoms, transmit the virus like adults do. Parents cannot holiday in a coronavirus hotspot and drop their kids to school three days later. Gone, too, are the days when a sniffling, coughing child can be sent off by parents to school.

Rapid testing for both teachers and students is also vital. Schools are going to be hard-pressed to stay open in the absence of immediate testing for teachers and students. In June, healthcare professionals and patients in hospitals waited an average of 16.8 hours from swabbing to a result. Those kind of turnaround times, or at least within 24 hours, are going to be equally vital for teachers to avoid unnecessary absences. Similarly, parents who have children with mild non-coronavirus illness will not be able to get back to work without rapid testing.

A dedicated HSE helpline for schools is also going to be essential so that schools can access expert medical advice immediately when faced with challenging scenarios.

When schools reopen, they will be very different places. Diagrams accompany the second-level guidance for reopening. They demonstrate social distancing in classrooms ranging from an allegedly standard 49sq m to smaller classrooms of 42 and 37sq m and also show a PE hall. The latter has three different groups facing three different walls.

These three diagrams represent one of the biggest challenges facing schools – space. The classrooms measuring 49, 42 and 37sq m, when completely cleared of lockers, shelves and presses, can take 24, 20 and 17 pupils respectively.

Aside from certain subjects which have a strong practical element, like science, the vast majority of second-level subjects have 30 in a class. Most of the time, anywhere between six to 13 students will not fit in their own classroom.

The PE hall with three different groups may be the place where the overflow students from numerous different years will sit, their headphones plugged into devices as they watch a livestream from their class. Supervising students to ensure that they are tuned into maths class and not TikTok will be an interesting challenge. Obviously, students are going to have to be rotated so that everyone gets a fair amount of time in the classroom itself. Classroom teaching may have to revert mostly to old-fashioned and unsatisfactory lecture-style teaching to facilitate overflow and cocooning students.

Many teachers have underlying health conditions as do a minority of students but only the most high-risk individuals will be allowed to work from home

But some schools have no overflow spaces, or have such inadequate internet access that livestreaming will be impossible. These schools will have no option except to put students into inadequately-distanced classrooms and have them wear masks all day.

Nor will schools be the sociable spaces they once were. Congregation will become a dirty word.

The friendly interactions at lockers before and after school can no longer happen. Students will be assigned to pods. Some students will be anxious about not having good friends in their pods but some will make lifelong friends.

The worries expressed about reopening are real. Schools are being asked to operate in conditions different from most of society. For example, in my local church, only 72 people are allowed to attend in a space with soaring vaulted ceilings that measures seven times the size of a larger classroom. We will be putting 24 pupils and a teacher into 49sq m in classrooms. Sure, schools are full of healthy young people while churches are mainly full of older people at greater risk. But some of the rules that apply in supermarkets, pubs and restaurants, or even choirs, will not apply in school. School buses are being treated differently to public transport.

Many teachers have underlying health conditions as do a minority of students but only the most high-risk individuals will be allowed to work from home.

There are significant risks around schools staying closed, too. Despite heroic efforts, remote learning can never replace school. Young people’s mental health will suffer if schools remain closed, never mind their education. A collapsed economy will deepen the injustices already suffered by the poorest. Given that, reopening remains the least bad option.