Social distancing will be a huge challenge for schools as they prepare for reopening, but it’s important to stay positive, according to principal of St Mel’s College, Declan Rowley, who stresses that “we must get the kids back to school”.
On Monday, the government announced its roadmap to enable the safe return of schools and local primary and post-primary institutions are now doing their best to put relevant protocols in place before they welcome students back in a number of weeks.
“Social distancing will be the main challenge. It’s going to be very difficult because the lads are back in groups. They’re back playing football and it will be impossible to stop that,” said Mr Rowley.
“But it’s also important that the lads to come back into school with the knowledge in place that it won’t be a prison camp.”
Social distancing will be almost impossible to maintain, especially with up to 60 young people crowding the narrow corridors of the old school after every class, but it is hoped that students will have a good knowledge of hand hygiene and that masks will be worn in classrooms.
“We’re trying to open as best we can but it’s difficult to reconfigure classrooms in an old school. There might be 27 or 28 lads in a classroom the size of a dressing room so we’re going to have to do our best to find a number of other rooms,” said Mr Rowley.
“Numbers are the big thing. Our old style classrooms weren’t built for social distancing.”
The government announcement on Monday saw schools faced with the challenge of acquiring extra teaching staff but, as Mr Rowley stressed, that will prove extremely difficult for a lot of institutions.
“We could have a fifth year chemistry class, which could be a large class, and it’s not easy to find a teacher who can teach chemistry,” he said, adding that, even at the best of times, it’s difficult to find new teaching staff.
“We advertised for new teaching staff earlier in the year and there wasn’t a large number of people applying for the job.”
Teaching staff will also be faced with the difficult task of ensuring the safety of themselves and their students by making sure social distancing measures are adhered to in the classrooms and the corridors between classes.
“The bell goes and you could have 60 lads in the corridor and the teachers will have to try to keep everybody safe. It’s going to be a challenge,” said Mr Rowley.
Add to that the risk of a Covid-19 infection in the school and things get a lot more difficult, especially as the autumn turns to winter and the usual cold and flu symptoms start to appear in the classroom.
“If we have a case or a suspected case in the school, we’ll have a designated sick bay and we will remove the student to that and contact their parents. Then it’s over to the HSE for testing,” said Mr Rowley.
“But the key thing is not to come to school with a temperature or with a flu. If they’re not sick coming in, they can’t bring something in to other students.
“But every cough is going to be a threat now,” Mr Rowley added.
“It’s going to be challenging but we’re going to do our best. We must get the kids back to school. It’s important to stay positive.
Government announces €376m package for schools
A financial package of €376m announced by the government in recognition of the significant challenges schools will face when reopening during Covid-19 will cover the following:
- Plans for an additional 1,080 teaching posts at post-primary level at a cost of €53 million.
- Additional funding, estimated at €84.7 million, so that schools can employ replacement teaching staff, SNA and administrative staff.
- Additional funding of €41.2 million, to provide primary schools with substitute staff.
- An estimated additional cost of €40m to provide post-primary schools with additional supervision of students.
- An additional €52 million for schools to put in place enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.
- Provide all teaching principals at primary level with a minimum of one release day per week to relieve the administrative burden arising from the changes and the impacts of Covid-19.
- A €75 million capital allocation to support schools to prepare their buildings and classrooms for reopening including an uplift for schools with SEN pupils.
- €4.2 million to enable schools to employ an aide to implement the logistical changes needed in schools
- €3.8m to provide release time for each school to have a lead worker representative, whose role is to support the school to manage the risk of COVID-19 infections.