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Coronavirus: Schools 'actively working on contingency plans' in case of nationwide closures

No closures have been implemented but this is being constantly reviewed.

Image: Shutterstock

SCHOOLS ACROSS THE country have been “actively working on contingency plans” should they be forced to close as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department of Education said on Tuesday there was “no such advice at this point” that schools should close, but acknowledged that the response to Covid-19 was “an evolving situation”.

Speaking later that evening, Minister for Health Simon Harris said that this is an option that may have to be considered at some point.

But regardless of no such decision currently being made, schools and teachers have already been making preparations should the situation change. This includes uploading materials to online portals and encouraging students to familiarise themselves with how to use them. 

“All schools are kind of actively working on their contingency plans around it,” Alan Mongey of National Association for Principals and Deputies told TheJournal.ie.

We’ve sent information and supports out to schools around possible approaches. Indeed, we’ve had a number of queries around how best to approach it. So whether that be using online learning platforms, either through Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom and a lot of schools are kind of familiar in using technologies like that.

“Some are better placed than others, but they’re the type of pieces of software that are quickly and easily set up.”

The school principal added that there have been some offers of support on remote learning from tech companies and that the NAPD is also available for advice.

Mongey also outlined that he and other principals had been getting messages, “whether it be WhatsApp groups or emails”, about claims that schools were about to be closed imminently.

While efforts have been underway to scotch these rumours, the developing situation has meant it is difficult to contain such information for long. 

Speaking on RTÉ radio yesterday about rumours of school closures, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said: “we’re not there now”.

“As a parent and also as a member of the government, I want to confirm two things. The first one is that no such decision has been made. The second thing, however, is that this will be reviewed very, very regularly. Because we could well get to a phase in handling and trying to protect our country from the spread of this virus that is the right thing to do,” he said. 

Primary schools

One hurdle that school closures will present for school boards is the difficulty of implementing remote learning for primary school students. With younger children, there is also the related issue of childcare. 

“The issue for primary children is we want to just make sure they continue their learning,” according to President of the Irish Primary Principals Network Damian White 

But it does present a greater challenge for their parents, in terms of childminding and so on. So we are aware of that.

White says for secondary school students the big issues are around things like language orals but that for the IPPN’s own members the issues could vary. 

“It’ll be down to each school to do as they see fit but some schools, because we’ve had a little bit of notice that it might happen, people are considering how they can best support the children if it does happen. I know that with second-level schools, you would have seen it on the news, where some of them are connecting remotely but that’s not always possible.”

And we have a lot of primary schools and a lot of them are in areas where there isn’t decent broadband or in some cases there’s no broadband, so we couldn’t say something that’s happening unilaterally -  but schools will support the needs of the children in every way they can. If it is to happen. 

White says some primary schools have been “making their own plans” to support children and have already been providing materials should schools be forced to close.

“Some schools have certainly gone and developed packs and children have them and have even sent them home already, should it become an issue,” he says.

School trips

While schools don’t have a say on classrooms potentially closing, one decision they are being forced to consider is the question of school trips scheduled over the upcoming months.

Mongey explains that, in his own school, discussions are ongoing with parents over a forthcoming Transition Year trip and that planned tours to stage plays and other events have already been cancelled.

“Whether it be over the Easter holidays or the weeks after, that’s probably the thing that’s probably most concerning for parents and for schools at the moment.

It’s a question of how best to handle that situation because you want to do the best for the students to make sure that you’re keeping them safe and ultimately, lessen exposure to anything that might happen, and trying to come up with an agreed position with that.

“I think schools have been cautionary and kind of reacting to the advice that they’re given from the department and trying to get as much information at parents as they possibly can,” he adds. 

The issue of schools potentially being out-of-pocket as a result of deciding against foreign trips was raised yesterday by Mattie McGrath TD.

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9347 Covid 19 Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Source: RollingNews.ie

The independent deputy called on the government to issue a temporary directive against foreign travel by schools so they point to this direction when claiming insurance.

McGrath cited the situation as a public health emergency and said this is “clearly one of those scenarios”.

“If the department and the minister were to make an unambiguous recommendation to cancel, then it would also allow to schools to point to it as the clear guidance they had received when dealing with parents and pupils,” he said.

In response to McGrath’s comments, the Minister for Finance said he would raise it with insurance companies.

“If the guidance from the Department of Foreign Affairs is that the non-essential travel should not happen, or indeed no travel at all, then schools need to recognise that and make a decision based on that information,” Donohoe said.

“What I’m increasingly conscious of and I’m getting feedback on this is some of the insurance consequences in relation to this, what this might mean for individual schools, and I was certainly raised this and see if there’s any way of recognising this via our insurance companies.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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