The recent announcement by Peter Weir, the NI Education Minister, that all pupils are set to return to school in September full-time will bring mixed feelings for parents and teachers alike, who no doubt will have serious concerns over safety. In order to facilitate this, Weir also announced that previously planned social distancing guidelines would be relaxed.
There is a serious danger that clusters of infection could emerge centered on large schools. The undermining of social distancing and the large concentrations of pupils could lead to a rapid spread of the virus. Professor Neil Ferguson has predicted up to a 50% increase in the rate of infection if secondary schools fully reopen this autumn.
In the South, more stringent measures are to be taken, including enforcing social distancing on school transport and reducing capacity. There is also a €75 million fund to allow schools to reconfigure their classrooms and toilet facilities to allow for physical distancing of students.
This is positive but still woefully inadequate. An OECD report entitled Education at a Glance 2019 declared Irish education “overcrowded and underfunded”. Much more will be needed to allow schools to fully reopen safely.
International experience points to rising cases
Recently, we have seen many US schools return to classes, effectively as normal, in states where infection rates are soaring. Tragically, in Georgia, after the first day back in school, a second grader (age 6-7) tested positive for the virus, causing the whole class and related teaching staff to have to self-isolate. LIkewise in France, 70 new cases were reported immediately after academic institutions opened their doors. We need proper safety measures to prevent the same occurring here.The main education union in Britain, the NEU, has lobbied the government for clarity and demanded its “5 Tests” of safety requirements are met before a return to face-to-face schooling. These include important provisions around significant reduction in the “R” number, resources being provided for Covid-19 tests, and care for vulnerable students and staff.
No return until it’s safe
The Westminster and Stormont governments have been woefully poor in providing a coherent plan to manage the easing of lockdown. A starting point should be consulting with parents, teachers and health experts in a genuine process, rather than dictating plans from above. Social distancing and hygiene must be rigorously maintained. This is the only safe way to function. Packed classrooms, hallways and school transport cannot be allowed. All funding necessary to expand facilities to meet need must be made available immediately and adequate time to prepare allowed.