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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 12 July, 2020
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Covid-19 will still be here in September so why not open schools sooner?

Ken Cowley, a parent and business owner, believes it’s time NPHET considered a careful reopening of schools.

Ken Cowley

IT WAS GOOD to hear the Chief Medical Officer state at the Dáil committee yesterday that ’We have effectively extinguished Covid-19 from the community’, just as it has been good to read recent reports that not only do young children rarely get ill with Covid-19, they are also unlikely to be spreaders of the virus. 

However, it is still the case that earlier entreaties to allow a cautious and phased summer-term reopening of our schools as part of the government’s cautious road-map seem likely to be ignored and with it an ideal opportunity to give our children some closure to their school year and some much-needed engagement with their teachers and friends.

This morning, a special envoy on Covid-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO), Professor David Nabarro, told breakfast radio on Newstalk that he believed it was now time to think about reopening schools in Ireland. He said the next phase of containing the virus in Ireland should focus on physical distancing, testing and tracing and face covers.

Wider impacts

Mr Nabarro makes a point worth considering. Most of our population is supportive of government actions so far in this crisis and we all sympathise with victims of the virus and applaud the efforts of our healthcare workers. It is indisputable however that Ireland’s strong and lengthy lockdown is going to cause extraordinary damage to our economy and our society.

At our recruitment agency, we can already see the impact on employment and the imperative to reopen our economy as soon as possible. But life is long and one hopes that for most of us much of the human, mental health, economic and societal damage being done can be repaired in the coming years. 

Childhood is short, however, and children only get one chance at an education. Consider if someone had told you last September that we would cancel almost half of the academic year for every child in the country. You would not have believed something so astonishing could happen. 

You would have railed at the damage which would be done to these children not just from an academic viewpoint, but also the impact upon children with special needs, only-children, children in apartments, hotels or direct provision, as well as children in difficult domestic situations or suffering from child-poverty, or for children with newly-unemployed parents.

You would also have been sad to think of the loss to those children of their play with friends, their teacher interaction, the social skills learning, the sport, the fun of the summer term, and everything else that school provides.

Even for healthy children with stable family life, their entire life has been turned upside down in the last nine weeks and at the very least many of them are becoming bored, stressed and isolated.

And yet, this is exactly what is happening. Half a year, gone. So, what this article wishes to convey is a request for a potential compromise to be sought with regard to some sort of modest primary-school opening in June rather than leave it until September. 

Why is Ireland different?

Apart from Spain & Italy, virtually all EU countries have either already gone back to school or are about to. Why are we different? Most bizarrely, even our Taoiseach seems to want to get the schools open. 

Yet still, NPHET does not budge.  Nothing is ever going to be without risk, but countries such as Denmark seem to be doing ok with their Covid-19 data (post-school-return).  Also, it was worrying that no explanation was forthcoming from the NPHET committee about the decision to leave the schools closed for a further four full months, so perhaps this might be a good time to suggest the addition of some child-welfare oriented input to the committee, eg Educators, or the Children’s Ombudsman.  

Let us say by way of example that we were to schedule one month’s school in June.  As well as the obvious direct benefits to pupils it would also provide the schools and the Department of Education with an opportunity for a ‘trial-run’ to see how the social distancing and other measures might work in practice, plus being the summer term it would allow the schools to be creative with their outdoor spaces. 

Most importantly though, it would allow the teachers, principals and other staff to check-in on the general wellbeing of their pupils. Such a re-opening would also allow some respite to parents and give them a few weeks to actually focus on their jobs and livelihoods.

The impact of the loss of schooling/childcare is of course in itself having a negative impact on the economy and this situation is only going to get worse as workplaces start to open back up over the summer.

Surely most parents would be happy with it being a limited non-mandatory re-opening and also allowing teachers with health issues to opt-out. Additionally, it would allow crucial closure for sixth class pupils and provide provision for a certain amount of curricular update by teachers with the pupils, as well as much needed fun events such as a safe socially-distanced sports day. 

Also, think of private enterprise – good business ideas play an important role in any economic recovery, but the fact that most potential entrepreneurs are home-schooling their children causes difficulty here. 

For most families, there will be no summer this year due to there being no childcare available before August (unless you are an essential worker, in which case you might be able to get it in July), no summer camps for children, and not much in the way of places to go on holidays either way.

The September argument

Many people will say, just leave it until September. What is so magical about September? The virus will most likely still be with us in September. Maybe it will fade. Maybe it won’t. Maybe there will be a treatment or a long-term vaccine. Or maybe there won’t. 

The virus might even surge back in the winter (let us hope not) and lead to future lockdowns in which case would we not look foolish for needlessly turning down the opportunity to give our children some schooling this summer term?

As of mid-May, our Covid-19 crisis has peaked and a major surge thankfully never happened. We have done well, and we did it together. But the downsides and eventual deaths, which will arise from the combination of economic collapse, postponement of non-covid healthcare, lockdown-related mental health issues and loss of education of our children, could end up significantly outnumbering deaths from Covid-19. 

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Right now is the perfect time to strike the correct balance as to how we move forward out of this.  Either way, our young people are the future of this country.  Let us start with them.

Ken Cowley is Founder & Director of Cowley Brown Recruitment, and parent of a junior infants pupil in a school in Dublin.

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