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Professor Sam McConkey: The reality is it could be November before schools are back in full

But Professor McConkey says if we went for a trial return this month, schools could be up and running by September.

Professor Sam McConkey

EDUCATION IS A critical part of the growth and development of children and young adults. During Covid-19, students have had to adapt to a new way of learning – one that involves a lot of self-motivation and independent study, something that may not have been the norm before 2020.

Information technology has played a big role in the delivery of education in this new normal. It has proven a useful tool for teachers to share knowledge and to get feedback on the everyday curriculum for subjects like maths, music and languages. It has acted as a daily touchpoint for students to ask questions, share homework, receive personalised feedback, and seek guidance.

However useful it may be, emergency home-schooling has its limits. By not being together in a physical environment like a school, students are missing out on parts of their education that cannot be taught over Skype or Zoom – the development of social skills, performance, self-confidence, and teamworking.

Some of these skills may be taught by parents at home, but, in my view, nothing quite matches the natural interactions that children have in the school environment among peers of their own age and level, with the skilled interventions of their teachers. And their parents can’t go to work.

How can this work?

For a safe and timely return to the normal delivery of education in a school environment, the approach may be better staged in a stepwise fashion. This gradual approach would re-build the confidence of staff, parents and the children. We can learn from what has worked in other similar countries, like Denmark, and many others. Fortunately, the health of the children does not appear to be a major risk.

Schools with the capacity to do so could convert sports or assembly halls into additional classrooms and split large classes into smaller groups of 10 or 12 students to allow for physical distancing of desks. In some cases, a class could be split into two smaller pods in one room.

Smaller class sizes will mean a requirement for more teachers, probably a good thing for all. This could create hundreds of additional jobs for teachers in schools across the country.

Break times could be staggered to reduce large clusters of children playing together at once and organised so that the same children are in close contact on a regular basis. Teachers could assign students a ‘pod’, a group of four or five students that can play together in the schoolyard, free of any of the restrictions that apply during the rest of the day.

This will help to foster the natural social interactions of children while mitigating the risk of cross-infection. This is like each child’s own family bubble merging together with the bubble of a few other families. We will need to be innovative to make this work, particularly for younger children.

As the rates of Covid-19 decrease in Ireland; hopefully to very low levels or to elimination completely; we may be able to safely discontinue physical distancing rules and get back to team sports, free play, and children rolling around together freely.

Students and children who are unwell or have ill family members should be discouraged from attending. They may need priority testing for the virus. Each school and crèche need a plan of action if a member of the teaching staff falls ill. Do the students and teachers in close contact need to self-isolate, and if so, how is teaching maintained?

Try it and see

To identify issues, and to build confidence, the new arrangements could be piloted and trialled with a smaller group of students initially, to work out practical elements like the scheduling of breaks and managing the use of communal facilities, like toilets. This could work on a phased basis, starting with a quarter of students, gradually increasing to half and eventually, full school populations there at one time.

Reopening schools has worked successfully in other countries. Schools in Denmark re-opened six weeks ago, operating under new rules that will limit the risk of transmission of infection. The children’s desks are two metres apart. There are 10 or fewer children per class.

To facilitate this, all the rooms of the school are being utilised for class teaching: sports halls and canteens are converted to classrooms. Handwashing has become a regular procedure as part of the school day, required once every hour, and the drop-off and collection of children takes place at staggered intervals.

The return in stages will take a few months to implement. If the phasing in of students only begins in September, it could be November before schools are back in full. However, if we started piloting this new arrangement in late July or August, we could see a return to full attendance by September, the traditional start of the school year.

Best of all in my view is to pilot sometime this month. For students who have been at home since early March, the return to school might be a welcome change as they will be able to play with their friends again.

Additional funding to implement the new measures will also need to be considered – simple actions like regular, hourly handwashing with hot water and soap, when multiplied by hundreds of students over the course of a week, will increase the daily running costs of schools. More teachers, and more classrooms may be needed.

There is no way to eliminate all risk of Covid-19. The number of new cases of Covid-19 each day in Ireland is now very low. However, if we can put the procedures in place to mitigate as much of that risk as we can, then it should be acceptable to most people, and present a similar level of risk to what we take every day in other activities.

As long as we have in Ireland very low rates of unexplained community transmission of Covid-19, rapid same-day results, testing and tracing, effective adherent self-isolation of first and perhaps second-degree contacts, and control of incoming Covid-19 at our borders, then this should be relatively safe for our children and their families.

To see this develop successfully, the Department of Education and the groups that represent teachers, parents and children, health and safety staff, and public health specialists will need to come together soon in a partnership reminiscent of Home School Community Liaison Scheme of the 1990s, to negotiate a safe way forward that is broadly acceptable for all, even if it is not the first choice of anyone.

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Professor Samuel McConkey is Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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Professor Sam McConkey

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