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Government schools plan may mean adapting rules around social distancing

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Joe McHugh

Joe McHugh

Joe McHugh

The Government is planning for the return of all pupils to schools in a considered gamble that fully reopening education facilities is not a threat to public health.

It could mean schools applying different social-distancing rules than other parts of society to ensure that children are not facing a part-time return to the classroom in August/September.

Teachers union leaders have warned that they will not tolerate a return to school that flouts whatever social-distancing rules are in place at the time.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Education Minister Joe McHugh sent clear signals of the Government's intent after a Cabinet meeting, which was given an update on planning for the reopening of schools.

The Cabinet heard that a two-metre social-distancing rule would limit primary pupils to one day a week and post-primary pupils to two days a week.

With a one-metre rule, primary pupils could attend for two-and-a-half days a week and some post-primary pupils for the same time, with others attending at, or near, a full-time basis.

Mr McHugh said sending children for two or three days a week "is not a runner".

"If we just bring back 20pc or 50pc of students we will do more damage because of educational neglect and potential regression," he said.

Hygiene

He said he wanted a "common sense approach" to reopening, with children and staff "far enough away from each other so that they are not breathing on, or touching, each other".

It would have to be accompanied with good hygiene practices and regular cleaning of commonly touched surfaces.

The Government was aiming for "a sustainable plan for reopening schools, which will protect the health of school communities while promoting the educational and development needs of the nation's children".

The plan includes a commitment to extra funding for school cleaning and hand sanitisers.

Mr Varadkar echoed Mr McHugh's sentiments. He said there were "difficulties" relating to social-distancing rules, but suggested "bespoke solutions", like the procedures being brought in for creches.

The announcement sparked some fury with teachers unions.

Teachers' Union of Ireland president Seamus Lahart said: "The oblique suggestion that classrooms could operate without social distancing is both odd and alarming. These workplaces cannot be treated as if they enjoy some magical immunity from the risk that characterises other workplaces."

Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland general secretary Kieran Christie said it "would be very concerned if a differentiated approach to physical distancing is introduced for schools which deviates from that which pertains to wider society. Any deviation from the health advice available from the National Public Health Emergency Team would be unacceptable."

Irish National Teachers' Organisation general secretary John Boyle said: "For an orderly and safe reopening of our schools, any decisions must be led by public health advice."