EDUCATION leaders in Cork are still "totally in the dark" on the reopening of schools in five weeks.
Schools around the country closed on March 12th as the Covid-19 outbreak intensified, and while teachers and principals have expressed their strong desire to bring students back into the classroom, they say questions need to be answered, and measures must be put in place to ensure the safety of everyone.
Ann Piggott, who is the current vice-president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and who is expected to be nominated as incoming President, said immediate guidance and funding to make schools safe for students and teachers to return is of paramount importance.
“There are no instructions, there are no guidelines, the time is moving on very quickly and I wonder how much can be done from the beginning of August to the end of August before students go back to school.
"It’s going to be a challenge for everybody but schools have to open, and people need their education, but we need guidelines,” she said.
She said guidance is needed on some very basic, but important areas including social distancing, the wearing of masks, and if perspex screens should be installed for teachers and at student desks.
“We even need guidelines about basic things such as if a student returns from a holiday from a country where they should go into quarantine and they don't, well what happens in a situation like that? Or if a student is in your classroom and they are coughing, what do you do then?
“The plans need to be made now, the guidelines need to be issued as soon as possible and we all need to know where we stand,” Ms Piggott added.
This sentiment was echoed by Aaron Wolfe, acting principal at Coláiste Éamann Rís in the city, who said it is very difficult to begin preparations for the return to school when schools don't know what to expect.
“We’ve been told nothing at all. We’re totally in the dark - are teachers going to wear visors, are we wearing face masks, who is going to fund that, who is going to fund the cleaning of schools? It is a nightmare,” he said.
Mr Wolfe said that the lack of information has also meant that parents are concerned about what to expect.
“It’s very difficult, because we don't have the answers,” he said.
Mr Wolfe said false information is also circulating.
“We had an email last week to see if we are abolishing school uniforms as it was seen on Facebook that uniforms were going,” he said.
However, he said this was not the case and students at his school will be wearing uniforms in September.
Fergal McCarthy, Principal at Kinsale Community School, said preparations ahead of the return to school are continuing, including around basic issues such as how students will move around and how to stagger breaks.
“The challenge is trying to get everybody back to school safely. We don't want to lose ground that has been gained while at the same time we want our children back in school,” he said.
Cork-based President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Mary Magner, said it was her understanding that the guidelines will issue by the end of the month and she said she felt “there’s no point in issuing guidance unless it's absolutely done properly”.
She said in addition to the guidance, clarity on areas like funding for substitution is also very important.
“If the teacher is sick, the principal cannot divide those children among the other classes as would be normal in the event of no substitute cover.
"We don't want to be in a position to have to send a class home in the event of no substitute cover.
"If this system is to operate successfully the Department will have to give us adequate substitution cover from day one of an absence. At the moment we don't have it for self-certified sick leave,’ she said.
It comes as the Education Minister Norma Foley faces mounting pressure to appear in the Dáil to outline plans about how schools will reopen in September.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education and Cork South Central TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said many of the parents he had spoken don’t have the confidence that a full and safe return to school is going to be delivered.
“We need to reassure them now- not next week or the week after,” he said.