A CORK school chaplain who will have four family members at four different schools in the coming weeks has laid bare the concerns facing parents, teachers, and workers as schools prepare to reopen.
John Hurley’s wife works as a special needs assistant (SNA) at a different school to his place of work and his daughters attend separate schools.
Schools are to reopen in the coming week or so, government funding and support has been made available for additional Covid-19 prevention measures, educational tools, minor works, and more.
However, concerns have been raised by parents, teachers,SNAs, and unions about the reopening of schools, amid fears of an explosion of Covid-19 cases.
Mr Hurley explained that while he is in favour of schools reopening, changes should have been made to ensure a safer return.
Speaking to The Echo, Mr Hurley explained his family’s situation impressed upon him the importance of getting the return to school right, and avoiding catastrophe in the form of coronavirus outbreaks.
“Four members of my family are going to different schools over the next two weeks,” he said.
“I work in Mayfield Community School, my wife works in St Brigid’s primary school in Midleton, one daughter goes to St Aloysius’ College in Carrigtwohill, and another attends St Patrick’s Primary school in Inch, Killeagh.
“On top of this, my father is 89 and he lives with us,” he added.
“He would be a high-risk individual to the effects of Covid-19.
“Over the next two weeks we will have interactions with more people than we have done in the previous six months.
“This brings with it a certain amount of anxiety as regards what happens if one of us contracts Covid-19 and brings it home to the family.”
Mr Hurley feels his family is not the only one facing such a difficult situation in the current climate.
“There are tens of thousands of families with children returning to school over the next two weeks. In many cases children may be going to more than one school, while the parents go to a different workplace. Across Ireland we have a higher incidence of COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] than the EU average, so this is going to be a huge concern for any families with vulnerable members,” he added.
“As a country we have done a good job in social distancing and restraining the spread of this disease.
“Over the next two weeks a million students will return to school. This will challenge any plans we have.
“Schools, the department, and the HSE will need to be ready to react quickly to any outbreaks that may occur.”
While he stated that many aspects of the Government’s roadmap to reopen schools are good, Mr Hurley warned that chronic underfunding in recent decades will challenge the ability of many schools to cope with the new regime.
“There is a strong emphasis on knowledge and correct procedures,” he said, praising parts of the roadmap.
“If you know how the virus is spread, and if you practice good hygiene, then you reduce your risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
He added: “However, in the context of education in Ireland, schools have been underfunded for decades, and chronically underfunded since the bubble burst ten years ago.
“We have some of the largest class sizes in Europe, with overcrowded classrooms, and too many schools where facilities are under pressure or students are working in portable buildings.
“Any effective response to Covid-19 will be hampered by this historical underfunding,” warned Mr Hurley.
“Schools are struggling to re-orientate rooms so as to provide the best social distancing possible.”
Mr Hurley said there are a number of aspects of the plan that he would change, if he had that power.
“I would allow schools to run split time-tables so that not all students would have to be in all of the time,” he said.
“I would have given schools far more financial resources to deal with the changes necessary to provide a safe place of teaching and learning.
“This is bolting the stable door a bit late, but I would have released the plan a few weeks earlier,” he added.
“Unfortunately this plan was released on July 27 — just a month before schools were due to reopen, and just as the builders’ holidays happened.”
Mr Hurley said he is of the opinion that schools should reopen and that there is a need for them to do so.
However, Mr Hurley stated that this must be done in the safest way possible.
“Young people also do well in an environment where they are learning and where they are challenged,” he said.
“Schools are not just about getting students ready for a set of state exams, schools are places that prepare students for a number of different challenges in life.
“Schools are places where students get to learn, and live, a set of values that prepare them for their whole lives,” he added.
“Distance learning is possible but it is a distant second place to learning within the classroom.
“Additionally, distance learning, for a number of reasons, is far more likely to disadvantage students who are already disadvantaged.”
For parents, teachers, and SNAs preparing for the return to school, one concern is to the fore.
“My personal understanding is that the biggest fear is of having an explosion of cases within a school,” said Mr Hurley.
“This virus has the ability to lie low in some cases.
“From what I have read it seems that a person can be contagious before they display symptoms,” he added.
“This is particularly worrying.
“However, it does look like the Government and the Department of Education and Skills have not looked seriously at other options such as blended learning or partial weeks for some year groups.”