WITH Tánaiste Leo Varadkar warning that outbreaks of Covid-19 in Irish schools are ‘inevitable’ once they re-open at the end of this month, it is little wonder that the majority of parents are nervous about their children returning to the classrooms. Yet, there seems to be an over-arching train of thought that they need to get back to school, having been off since the middle of March when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools and colleges, because they have been missing out, educationally and emotionally.
Distance learning and home schooling were deemed acceptable short-term solutions, but it was always clear that they were not sustainable ones in the longer term. The big question is: when is it going to be safe to let children back to school? The simple answer is that nobody really knows, but that next week’s return to the schools that are deemed ready to accept pupils and staff members as safely as they believe they can is predicated very much on a wing and a prayer.
There is an element of a gamble about it, but experience in other countries has shown that it can be done. Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, said that schools have to re-open as they are an essential part of life. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said earlier this month that ‘we have learned a lot about this virus that we didn’t know, for example, back in March, and we do know that schools are a lower-risk environment than may have been thought at the time.’
The acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, has acknowledged that cononavirus cases in children are usually mild and that many children have no symptoms. This is fine for the children, but what about the adults – parents, teachers and other school and ancillary staff – they will be coming in contact with and especially grandparents who provide back-up babysitting from time to time?
Even though their unions have been, quite rightly, urging caution as regards the roll-out and handling of the back-to-school protocols – which were issued quite late in the day by the Department of Education – individual teachers and principals have been working hard to ensure that they are in place for next week. The general consensus amongst them seems to be that a lot of their time when they go back will be about settling both the children and themselves into a routine and that they will be focusing on their wellbeing rather than the curriculum.
In second-level schools, the wearing of face masks by both teachers and students is essential, according to the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, as the risks of contracting Covid-19 are greater than among younger children. Its president said that, while her members are very glad to be going back to work, they would prefer if students would be wearing masks at second level.
How they will implement social distancing for classes that have 30 or more children – of which there are a lot across Ireland – is going to be the biggest challenge. To say that it is ‘unknown territory’ is an understatement and people just cannot possibly know how it will pan out until they establish if it works or not.
However, as one West Cork primary school principal pointed out recently, ‘Children need to be able to go to school so that parents can go to work and that’s the bottom line and also the children want to go back to school and they want to get back to normality.’
Speaking pragmatically about the new reality, Leo Varadkar made the point: ‘I just think we need to maybe raise the understanding among people that this is a highly infectious virus and everyone doing the right thing still means that some people may get the virus.’ He acknowledged that school closures would, nonetheless, be ‘further down the list of things that might have to be done to suppress the virus,’ if a surge was seen during the winter months.
Making use of robust testing mechanisms and contact-tracing, the Irish authorities will have to deal with any clusters that occur in schools and, inevitably, at the start, they will have to err on the side of caution and close schools the minute an outbreak is detected. WHO’s Dr Nabarro said that, over time, the approach may become more sophisticated as we learn how to manage schools and see how the situation progresses.
Applied to schools, the term learning curve is not just apt, but is crucial to – hopefully – favourable outcomes. And, very much a case of live and learn.