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Ten questions about the plan to re-open schools.

The plan to re-open schools was released yesterday to great fanfare, and contains lots of big announcements, which are neatly summarised here, courtesy of the journal.ie:

1,080 extra teachers will be added to post-primary schools at a cost of €53 million to help reduce class sizes.

Additional substitution, supervision, guidance counsellors and psychologists will also be included in the package.

Lunch breaks and school start times are set to be staggered, while the wearing of face coverings will not be compulsory in classrooms.

Face coverings will be compulsory for post-primary students when travelling on or waiting for public transport, with the exception of those with medical or special educational needs.

Bus Éireann-operated school transport services will fully operate in line with public health advice.

Each service will carry the same children to school every day. Pupils will be required to sit in pre-assigned seats and sit next to either a sibling or a child from their class group.

€52 million will be given to schools for “enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures”.

Here are some obvious questions about the plan:

Is the number of new teachers enough?

There are 729 secondary schools in Ireland, and the plan is to add 1,080 new teachers. This works out at 1.48 new teachers per school. How does this reduce class sizes? Is it a new maths teacher? If so, how does that reduce the number of students in an English class, and so on? We are told the package includes new substitutes, guidance councillors, and psychologists – so this probably means one new teacher, or less, per school. How will that have a meaningful impact? How was the number of one thousand arrived at? Was it just a case of picking a number that sounds big, and running with it?

How can classrooms practically be cleaned between classes?

The plan calls for classrooms to be cleaned in between classes. What time period will be provided for this to be accomplished? How can a teacher in a practical subject – like woodwork – be expected to individually clean every tool in the two minutes between classes?

How do students socially distance in narrow corridors?

It’s one thing to claim that there will be social distancing of one or two metres in classrooms (more on that in a moment) but how on earth do they plan to manage it during the breaks between classes? In most post-primary schools, the students move from classroom to classroom, en masse, five or six times a day. That usually means charging out into a narrow corridor with every other student in the school, and marauding their way to the opposite end of the building. One infected student would pass hundreds of fellow students in this way, daily. It doesn’t really matter if the classrooms are distanced, if the kids are rushing past each other in narrow corridors.

What about practical subjects?

Lots of classrooms are laid out for the special use of practical subjects – with computers, drawing equipment, science equipment, and so on. These classrooms – and computers and equipment – were not designed or laid out with social distancing in mind. What funds are being made available for situations where classrooms simply cannot accommodate social distancing and teach the subject?

Isn’t transport still a mess?

Bus Eireann will operate “in line with public health advice” says the guidance – but the public health advice requires social distancing on busses, and many school busses are at capacity in normal times. What provision is being made for extra school busses on many routes? Where will the busses, or the drivers, come from?

You can’t stagger the school bus service – have the one bus do the same route twice, for example – because school busses usually serve both a primary AND a secondary route. They pick up the secondary students first, drop them off, and then go to start picking up the primary students. In the evenings, they do the reverse – primary first, secondary second. For social distancing to work, the Government may have to almost double the total number of school busses in operation. How is this possible?

What happens when there’s a seasonal cold that isn’t the Coronavirus?

Every single year, there are seasonal bugs and colds and flus that go around. People muddle through them. But what happens when these bugs hit and schools are in strict coronavirus protocol? Somebody with a cough, or a sore throat, will be compelled to stay at home even with mild symptoms, in case they have the coronavirus. In many schools, this will mean lots of teachers and students out at the same time, out of purely precautionary measures, won’t it?

What happens when teachers don’t feel safe?

With all of the above issues, it is not difficult to foresee a situation where teachers who are either immunocompromised themselves, or have immunocompromised family members, simply don’t feel safe in their working environment. What happens then? Do older teachers simply take early retirement? Do teachers in schools simply walk out, or contact their unions?

What power do schools have to act against rogue students?

What happens when local troublemaker Tommy decides that he’s had it with his maths teacher and coughs in his face? Or when students just ignore the social distancing rules, or when parents refuse to allow their child to wear a facemask? Can the school exclude them, suspend them, or expel them? It’s all very well saying that these measures will be taken, but schools already have very limited disciplinary options. When you pour a thousand teenagers into a school, it is a certainty that there will be at least one overt troublemaker. What can schools do about them?

What happens when there is a case of Covid?

Does the whole school shut down? For how long? What if it is only a suspected case, but the test takes a week to come back? Does the school stay open until the results come back? If so, and the case turns out to be positive, isn’t that a massive risk? But equally, if the school shuts down over a suspected case, schools could spend more time closed than open. What are they to do?

How much money do principles have to make preparations?

The schools are due to open in four weeks. As Peadar Toibin TD points out this morning in a press release:

The devil is in the lack of detail with principals still none the wiser on how much money their school has to prepare for reopening. This is a real problem. The clock is counting down. Work to prepare has to start to commence now. The lack of detail slows the ability to get work done”. 

“The creation of substitute teaching panels are welcome however there is no detail on how many teachers will be available for each school. There is also significant concerns that 1,000 teachers are likely to be retiring from schools before Christmas. Will the extra teachers promised even cover those that are retiring? Many schools will have 30 pupils in classrooms that is no more than 35 square metres in size. What are the guidelines for these schools? Should principles be splitting these classes into two? If so will there be an extra teacher available?  

“The government have asked schools to appoint a Covid officer and an assistant Covid officer. This is a position of significant responsibility which will be unpaid.  Teachers are already hammered with extra roles and responsibilities. Many questions remain unanswered unfortunately and much detail is still needed”.  

He’s not wrong, is he?


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