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Where’s the plan B for schools?

Comment & Opinion

NEW REALITY A teacher prepares her classroom for the return of students and social distancing.

Schools strategy must include online alternative

AS schools prepare to reopen in the coming days the realities of the coronavirus pandemic have been brought back into serious focus for teachers, parents and families. The sudden imprimatur of home-schooling and online learning last March now appears to have been an interim measure as the complex logistics of opening classroom doors in the real world forge ahead.
The gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions over the last two months allowed children to play outside again with their friends, teenagers to gather – sometimes in worryingly large groups – and families to escape the confines of their back gardens and head off on holidays. Westport, Achill and Belmullet and the other towns and villages along the Co Mayo coast have witnessed an influx of staycationing visitors over recent weeks.
While there have been certain stresses felt by the local tourism industry in the new form of catering for such influxes of people, it has generally worked well, as the stability in the numbers of Covid-19 in the county would indicate.

Social distancing
Opening up schools as winter approaches is uncharted territory, however. Hoping that small children will be able to contain themselves within the new social-distancing regulations is big challenge.
Organising lunch breaks so that teenagers don’t gather in big groups once outside the confines of schools sounds like a logistical nightmare. Clearing out classrooms of all the resources that help to make the educational experience a creative and enjoyable one puts extra pressure on the teachers and their assistants. Wearing face-masks or shields adds to the challenge of clear communication.
A recent report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control notes that when children are symptomatic they can shed the virus to the same levels as adults, but it is still not known how infectious asymptomatic children are.
“While very few significant outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools [internationally] have been documented, they do occur, and may be difficult to detect due to the relative lack of symptoms in children,” the report states.
Indeed, Tánaiste and medical doctor Leo Varadkar told RTÉ Radio’s Open for Business show that clusters in schools would be inevitable.
Surely this is a compelling reason for a clearer messaging strategy from the Government?
Indeed, the Government’s communications about the tweaking of several restrictions last week – from football matches to home gatherings, never mind the so-called Golfgate in Clifden and its fall-out – leaves a lot to be desired where logic and clarity prevail. Add in the pandemic fatigue that has already infected large parts of the population and we could be facing a number of very difficult months – with the ongoing economic fallout just one of the headaches.

Strategic thinking
DOES it not behove our Minister for Education to stop dodging hard media questions and outline a parallel online alternative that will be available for schools if they are forced to close? If universities and colleges can implement a hybrid form of remote and on-campus education, surely this can be effected at first and second levels, with the necessary economic supports for parents forced to stay at home or employ childcare?
As Linda Connolly, the Professor of Sociology at NUI Maynooth, wrote in last week’s Irish Times: “All these issues should be considered now, not in September when the Dáil reconvenes and when it is too late. If schools cannot or should not reopen fully now or at any future point during this pandemic, what is plan B?
“Nursing homes, workplaces dominated by migrants and direct provision are the institutional casualties of this pandemic thus far. We should tread carefully and very slowly in education. Health is wealth.”
Doesn’t that resonate for all of us?