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Large schools will have to stagger their opening times in September, warns union

Education Minister Norma Foley says that public health advice will underpin the reopening of and operation of schools.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews

LARGE SCHOOLS WILL have to stagger their opening times when they return in September, the head of a teachers’ union has said.

Under new guidance published by the Department of Education, primary school pupils from third class up and all secondary school students will be required to maintain a distance of at least one metre between each other when schools return.

Teachers will be required to maintain at least a one-metre distance between themselves and students, although exceptions will be made for when teachers have to administer first aid.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Into) general secretary John Boyle told a Dáil committee it will not be safe to open large schools safely in September if crowds of parents and pupils all turn up at the same time.

Boyle said he was principal at one of the largest schools in Ireland up until last year and it is his view that large schools will face more challenges when it comes to re-opening.

He said: “There were particular logistic difficulties at the school with 600 pupils, 150 teachers and God knows how many parents every morning. That is a case where there is going to have to be staggered opening, particularly initially.

“It will not be safe to have a safe re-opening of a school of that size on the first of September for all pupils, especially if all of those people turn up to the school gate at the same time. It will have to be different this year.”

Education Minister Norma Foley said her objective is to fully reopen schools but that decision will be underpinned by public health advice. 

“I am very cognizant of if education has to work it works in partnership with all stakeholders, and therefore I am using these documents as a platform to move forward to intensify engagement with the stakeholders,” Foley told RTÉ’s Drivetime. 

Foley added that while all the answers are not available at present, they are being worked through with “a wide range of stakeholders”.  

“It is everyone’s clear objective that we return to schools, that we reopen the schools and that’s for the benefit of everyone.”

‘A national embarrassment’ 

The Dáil also heard that parents and educators should not make children afraid to return to school in September.

The National Parents Council Post Primary (NPCPP) told the Dail Covid-19 committee “we must not make our children afraid of going to school”.

NPCPP president Mai Fanning said schools must be mindful of students’ wellbeing as they will be returning to school after a six-month hiatus.

“Teachers and parents will need to step outside our comfort zones and face the fact that, for some time to come, there may be some calculated and considered risks which need to be taken in our efforts to effectively take care of the nation’s children and students,” she said.

The committee heard that 91% of parents want their children to return fully to school in September.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar told reporters in Dublin he is confident that all pupils will be able to return in September.

He said: “I’m confident that is possible. It is going to be a new normal. It is not going to be the same as it was before but I am confident that we will be able to manage a full reopening of schools in the autumn but that has to be tempered by the fact there is always a possibility that the virus might come back and that would change things.”

Boyle told the committee it is “something of a national embarrassment” that Ireland has the “largest class sizes in the Eurozone”.

“Many of our primary school classrooms have more than 30 pupils, with our European neighbours enjoying an average of just 20 in a class,” he said.

“This really matters when we look at applying social distancing.”

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General secretary of teaching union ASTI Kieran Christie said there was “consternation” among its members when a department report said a “differentiated approach to physical distancing in schools” could be considered.

“An inferior approach to physical distancing in schools from that which pertains to wider society or any deviation from the health advice available from the National Public Health Emergency Team or the Health Protection Surveillance Centre would be unacceptable,” said Christie.

He added: “From our perspective, there simply cannot be rules on physical distancing that apply outside a school in wider society or business that don’t apply inside a school.”

- With reporting from Adam Daly  

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