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'Keep one metre apart' is rule when schools take all pupils back

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New Education Minister Norma Foley

New Education Minister Norma Foley

New Education Minister Norma Foley

New guidance on physical distancing in schools presents serious challenges for a full return by all pupils.

Newly appointed Education Minister Norma Foley has published interim public health advice underpinning reopening schools.

It says there is no need for physical distancing for pupils up to and including second class in primary schools.

However, for older pupils, including post-primary, a separation of at least one metre is recommended.

The advice was prepared by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

Strict

It remains to be seen how individual schools will be able to meet the requirements, although the advice may change between now, the end of August and start of September.

Ms Foley, who has taken on the top job in education from her previous role as a teacher of English in Co Kerry, said the call from Taoiseach Micheal Martin was utterly unexpected.

Ms Foley published the health advice along with a Covid-19 plan for primary schools about how to prepare for the strict health and safety regime that will apply from September. A similar plan will now be developed for post-primary schools.

She said while "you can never be definitive" she was working toward an optimum return.

The interim public health advice covers a range of areas from drop-off and pick-up to handwashing, staggering break times and the use of classroom equipment.

The level of detail covered includes the use of play dough and, while there is no distancing requirement for junior classes, there is a very strict no-sharing rule around the use of the classroom staple.

Its guidance around physical distancing is underpinned by the twin principles of increasing separation and decreasing interaction.

For primary schools, it suggests two possible approaches to meeting the separation requirement.

In a traditional classroom with standard desks, it would mean a distance of one metre between students.

The alternative is to maintain separate "pods" - a small number of pupils working within groups.

While one pod would maintain a distance of one metre from another pod, there would be no requirement for minimum distance between individual pupils in the pod.

A pod refers to a small group within a class but it also recommends classes themselves be regarded as "bubbles", which stay apart from other classes as much as possible.

Specific advice for post-primary schools includes, as far as possible, students remaining in the classroom and teachers moving between rooms.

Other issues covered include face coverings, which, in general, should not be required for school staff if physical distancing is possible, it states.

It adds that wearing a visor as an alternative may be considered where there is a concern there will be prolonged close contact and that exposure to fluid/respiratory droplets is likely.

For pupils, the advice states that face coverings are not suitable for children under the age of 13.