TAOISEACH Micheál Martin has insisted that the Government is pressing ahead with plans to reopen schools nationwide next week, in spite of rising concerns about safety.
During a visit to Nagle Community College in Mahon yesterday — where Mr Martin was given a tour of the facility and information on health and safety measures — he emphasised that the development of children was paramount.
“I am very conscious that as Taoiseach of this country we owe it to the children and the young people to enable them to have a proper quality learning experience and education experience,” he said. “We are going ahead with the school opening. I think we have taken steps now which will hopefully have an impact on [Covid-19] numbers.
“This morning I wanted to see at first hand myself the types of changes that are being made to schools in the various school settings to facilitate the reopening of schools. I am very impressed here by Nagle Community College — very interesting to see the computer rooms and the use of perspex coming down out of the ceiling — evidence of the can-do attitude of teachers and education staff across the board in just getting to grips with this.
“I have always been deeply concerned about the loss of so much school time early in the year. I think it’s very, very important that we do everything we can to enable children to come back to school safely. It’s also about taking personal responsibility — everyone here will get their personal PPE packs on arrival.”
But he faced hard questions from a teacher he met while visiting flood-hit Skibbereen a few hours later.
The Dublin teacher said she was going back to a school where she would be faced with 28 to 30 students in a classroom, a situation which she described as “criminal”.
“Kids will get it, staff will get it, parents will get it, and the wider community will get it,” she said.
The teacher asked Mr Martin to reconsider the guidelines and to work more closely with stakeholders to ensure a safer environment for all.
Independent councillor Mick Finn also believes risks involved in reopening the schools next week need to be reassessed and reconsidered,
The city councillor, who has over 10 years’ experience working in primary and secondary schools, said there is no point opening the schools if we have to shut them in two weeks and end up back at square one. “I think it needs to be reconsidered,” he said.
“This is all over the place. Juxtapose that against the decision to allow six people at an outdoor sports event. I just can’t work out how that can be done, given that Covid is 19 times more likely to be passed on in an indoor setting. I can’t see the logic of this at all.
“I think there is no point rushing back if a number of kids come into school with the disease or a number of staff, and then they have to close again after a week or two. My problem with it is if you look at other areas where there are heavy restrictions there is no logic to me in saying that you can bring schools back fully, classrooms, staffrooms, you can’t bring them back fully if other areas of society are compromised.
“Pubs, restaurants, weddings, churches, you have maximum numbers there and you letting teachers into a room with 30 students, it makes no sense. That’s what I can’t get my head around. This is a public health emergency and I think we need to err on the side of caution.”
The Taoiseach said that “evolve and adapt” will be the key watch words in relation to the school year. He
said there won’t be serial testing in schools.
“The key is prevention,” he said. “We want people to reduce their mixing with other people and to keep your contacts low and keep social distance and that’s what exactly planned here for re-opening with each teacher having their own individual packs which they will require for teaching.
“We have worked with the public health authorities and their advice has been very strong. We will evolve and adapt as advices come our way.”
Mr Martin said he understands the anxiety of parents about sending their children back to school.
“That is why I came here this morning and that is why I keep in touch with many, both parents and in the education community to see first hand how the schools are preparing and adapting. This has to be about participation in education in a safe way.” .
Separately, the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union has written to Minister for Education Norma Foley outlining its members’ concerns.
The union has called for clarification “on a number of critical concerns regarding the restrictions now implemented and guidelines provided for the return to school”.
President Reuban Murray acknowledged that “students, families, teachers, and all in the school community recognise the necessity to return to school” but said that “this requires clearer communications on the health and safety protocols expected within schools”.