For several weeks now, the goal of keeping our schools open has been the holy grail of the nation’s coronavirus strategy. It is a target which goes well beyond its immediate educational relevance, since a fully functioning school system is seen as pivotal to the recovery of economic and social life.
But it is a goal that runs totally counter to the accepted science of how the pandemic can be controlled and suppressed. The nation’s classrooms are the only public space where it is considered safe for up to 30 people to cluster for up to five hours a day, while every other workplace in the country is exhorted to minimise contact and eliminate group working.
The challenging reality that close contact of human beings in confined spaces must lead inevitably to increased transmission is being blithely ignored in what is seen as the wider public interest. But the virus does not make exceptions, even for centres of education.
And maybe it is no surprise that it is that way. Teachers, parents and educators are at one in recognising that online learning is no substitute for the human interaction of the classroom.
Children have suffered, emotionally and educationally, during the months of closure from lack of personal contact and the isolation of learning at home. Teachers are all too aware of the difficulties of working online, of trying to engage with students, of keeping parents in the educational loop, of coping with faulty or non-existent internet systems, of trying to co-ordinate classwork by means of remote contact. No teacher would want to return to the surreal, artificial atmosphere of those three months trying to put order on chaos.
It is to the credit of school principals, their teachers and school boards that so much was achieved in preparing schools for the ‘new normal’ of today’s classroom protocols. That all of that was done cheerfully and uncomplainingly says much for the dedication of teachers, who forfeited their personal time in order to get their classrooms fit for purpose in greatly altered circumstances.
But none of that should be taken for granted, and already there are troubling signs that teacher patience may be fraying at the edges. There is anecdotal evidence of teachers and principals being deluged with reams of lengthy written edicts and directives on how classrooms should and should not operate. There is a suspicion that much of this may emanate from the old bureaucratic tradition of covering one’s back and making sure that, should anything go wrong, those at the top will be able to quote a rule or instruction to show that the blame can be placed down the line. In short, teachers may well fear that they are being set up for a fall.
There is also the question of the recent announcement that school inspectors are to carry out health and safety inspections on behalf of the HSE to ensure that the raft of instructions are being complied with. Such an exercise in micromanagement hardly promotes a consultative atmosphere with teaching professionals who have long been entrusted with serious responsibility over a wide range of issues concerning children’s educational and developmental welfare.
If HSE inspectors are to visit schools to ensure Covid compliance, it needs to be in a spirit of genuine dialogue rather than an exercise in supervisory box-ticking. Teachers have shown themselves to be cooperative, dutiful and involved in the complex task of getting schools back and running. The last thing they want is to be left carrying the can if things go wrong.