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'Once a week' school return plan slammed as 'kite-flying'

  • Minister faces fury over proposal

  • Uncertainty is 'causing stress'

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Fianna Fail’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne

Fianna Fail’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne

Fianna Fail’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne

Politicians have criticised a proposal to reopen schools for one day a week as part of the lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Government has been accused of a "kite-flying extravaganza" after Health Minister Simon Harris signalled schools could initially reopen for one day a week as part of the gradual lifting of the pandemic restrictions.

The Department of Education has made no firm decisions on when and how schools will reopen in the coming months, but the Government will set out a roadmap in the coming weeks. All schools are currently closed until at least May 5.

Labour education spokesman Aodhan O Riordain said: "It's totally impractical for a whole number of reasons to fly a kite about going back once a week in June without talking to unions and parents.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail education spokesman Thomas Byrne said uncertainty over schools was causing "stress for students".

He also said he was increasingly questioning the fairness of the Leaving Certificate going ahead when a survey by the National Parents Council Post Primary last week found that a fifth of students didn't have access to broadband.

"The British are handing out free computers and 4G sticks to people. There is massive uncertainty from the Department of Education," Mr Byrne said.

"I don't think they have fully identified the issues and they haven't begun to address them. What we want to see is a plan. I don't think it's fair to have this constant speculation."

Mr Byrne wrote to the Department of Education on Friday seeking more details on how it plans to address difficulties students are currently facing in trying to study at home.

Sinn Fein education spokesman Donnchadh O Laoghaire said there needed to be clear guidance for all schools on what measures they should take if they did reopen, including whether teachers should wear gloves and masks.

"The preparation needs to be clear and we need to have a very uniform, phased approach," he said.

A Department of Education spokesman said: "Decisions in relation to the reopening of schools will be taken based on the public health advice in the coming weeks."

Problems

A senior Government source said: "In two weeks' time people will need to know what the plan is around schools for the rest of the year and that is the intention."

Denmark began reopening its schools last week - the first country in Europe to do so - with strict social-distancing rules in place.

A school principal here has argued that social distancing in schools would not be possible for younger children, and that opening schools for a day each week would pose many logistical problems.

"You cannot social distance in a primary school. It doesn't matter how many kids are there, it doesn't matter how you set it up, it's absolutely not possible.

"If we're going to be going back, that needs to be taken as a given," said Catriona Golden, who is the principal at Ennis Educate Together.

She said that stakeholders, such as teaching unions and parents, needed to be involved in discussions about reopening schools.

While remote learning has been explored by some schools, not all students may have access to the technology while at home.

"Everyone is doing some form of distance learning," said Ms Golden.

"We are a DEIS school, so almost all of the kids don't have access to devices. It's a no-go.

"Schools are not going to stay closed until there's a vaccine, they can't. That's not going to happen."

Meanwhile, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said that teachers were ready to resume remote learning from today, but that mistakes made elsewhere must not be repeated here.

"Any decision to reopen our primary schools must be led by public health advice. Engagement with workers and their unions must take place in advance of any such decision.

"The health and safety of teachers, pupils and parents must be guaranteed before our schools reopen," said a spokesperson.

"We should look closely at the small number of jurisdictions where some schools have opened and endeavour to avoid repeating any mistakes that may have been made elsewhere.

"Primary teachers are ready to resume facilitating the continuity of learning remotely."

In an interview with the Sunday Independent yesterday, Mr Harris said reopening schools for one day a week was just one of the measures being considered by the Government.

He said any easing of current restrictions would be dependent on continued public compliance and the advice of public health officials.

"I'd like to see a situation whereby our schools could come back, or at least could come partially back," he said.

Mr Harris believed that this would be beneficial for the mental health and well-being of both students and parents.

"Imagine if children could go into school, even one day a week to get the books, meet the teacher, get the homework for the week," he said.

"From a socially distanced, safe point of view, meet their friends, and then go home.

"That would provide breathing space for families and information."