AS more than half a million primary school pupils prepare to return to school in a few weeks, following leave from the classroom since March due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) President says she is confident about the health and safety measures being put in place in schools.
Mary Magner, originally of Castletownroche and now living in Killavullen, is on secondment from her job as principal teacher at Scoil Chroí Íosa in Blarney so that she can devote her time to the INTO.
She says there is “a lot more clarity than previously and there is direction given to principals and boards of management to allow them to get on with the job of reopening schools.
“Every teacher wants to go back to school. All the families want to see the schools reopen and the children especially want to be back with their friends. They’ve missed their friends and teachers. The first priority of any teacher is to create a welcoming atmosphere for children coming back into school.”
Mary points out that the public health advice says that it’s not necessary for young children from second class down to infants’ class to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“The advice is that the teacher should be one metre apart from the pupils. The department of education has sent out layouts of different classrooms and how they can be set up to allow that to happen. Of course, the layout is different in schools depending on their size. Each school has to adapt to the guidelines. No one size fits all.”
Each class will operate as a unit. “Say you have two third classes in a school. These classes will not interact with each other. Within each class, or bubble, the children will be divided into groups and the recommendation is that they will be in a group of not more than six. That’s called a pod. The pod of six will operate together. The children in it will have their lunch together in their own contained little unit.
“Supposing maths activities are given to the pod. The children won’t share the maths materials with another pod.”
Mary says that children are so adaptable that “they will adapt to this situation. Adults think about things deeper than their children do. Children just get on with it.”
However, she concedes that some children have “disengaged from the learning process. There’s no doubt about that but I was glad to see in the guidelines that there will be additional support for those children from the National Educational Psychological Service.
“The department and stakeholders have recognised that reassuring children and looking after their wellbeing will be paramount when they return to school.”
Some children with special needs are reported to have suffered as a result of the lockdown. “Children with autism for example thrive on routine,” says Mary. “The school environment is the best place to provide that routine on a constant basis. The children follow timetables and are secure and happy within the school structure. Take that away and they’re going to feel anxious.
“We have to be cognisant that there are some families who have vulnerable children such as children with cystic fibrosis or asthma. I would imagine their parents will be contacting school principals and boards of management in relation to that.
“The department has said contingencies will be made available for these children.”
If a teacher (or pupil) presents with Covid symptoms or has an underlying condition, “the advice is, when in doubt, you should not present yourself at school. The whole concept behind the guidelines is to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
Mary welcomes the provision of substitute teachers. “Back since the cuts, one thing the INTO has sought and fought for is substitute teachers. We are assured that any Covid-related illness or sick leave will be covered.
“If you don’t have a teacher is front of a class unit, the whole system breaks down.”
Panels of substitute teachers throughout the country have been identified. “They won’t be employed as casual subs. They’ll be employed as temporary on a fixed term contract for a period of a year. So there’s certainty of employment for them.
“These teachers will serve a cluster of schools within their locality. We already have that system for teaching principals.”
Schools will have protocols in relation to sanitising before and after eating and playing with equipment. “Children are often used to that in the normality of school. Toys will be designated to the different pods and they’ll be cleaned on a weekly basis. We welcome the additional money for cleaning. Up to now, not every school is cleaned down every single.”
What if a school has to close down because of an outbreak of Covid-19?
“Public guidelines will have to be followed. There are steps to follow should a case of Covid break out or should somebody show signs of Covid. There will be a designated isolation room in schools and personal protective equipment for the teacher who will have to stay with the child until a parent comes to collect them. In relation to school closure, that will be done under public health guidelines. We’re not medical experts. But if a Covid outbreak happens in the community, our main job is to prevent it from coming into schools.”
Covid-19 is tough on children who should be leading carefree lives. “We should all be carefree if we lived in an ideal world,” says Mary.