The Government has approved a €375 million support package to allow for the full reopening of the country's 4,000 schools at the end of August.
Details of the funding are contained in Reopening Our Schools: The Roadmap for the Full Return to School, which was published on Monday evening. Schools closed on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in coming up with a plan to reopen have been widely criticised.
According to the Department of Education, this roadmap and funding "recognise the challenges faced by schools in the context of COVID-19 and sets out clear plans and practical guidance on the measures schools will need to take to operate safely and minimise the risk of the introduction, or spread, of infection in schools".
When it comes to social distancing, the roadmap states that at primary school level, no distancing will be required for children in junior infants, senior infants, 1st class and 2nd class. From 3rd class upwards, distancing of one metre is required.
Each class will be seen as a ‘bubble', staying apart from other classes. If there is space, each class should be further divided into ‘pods' - small groups of children who will work together and have minimal contact with other pods. There should be a one metre gap between children within these pods and between the pods themselves.
In secondary school, two metre distancing should be maintained where possible, and one metre where not.
Hand hygiene is obviously a major part of the plan, with hand santisers to be made widely available and the correct washing of hands encouraged throughout the day.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) will not be required, except in certain circumstances, such as if a suspected case of COVID-19 is identified. Face masks are also not required.
Separate break times and staggered drop-off/pick-up times should be considered where practical and feasible.
Other key elements of the roadmap include:
-Over 1,000 additional teaching posts at secondary level are to be made available at a cost of €53 million
-Additional funding of over €41 million to provide primary schools with substitute staff
-An additional €52 million for schools to put in place enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission
-A €75 million capital allocation to support schools to prepare their buildings and classrooms for reopening.
According to the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, this is a "comprehensive plan that will support our schools to reopen for the new school year".
"I am deeply conscious that children and young people have had their learning disrupted due to the global pandemic. So many of our teachers, our school staff and our parents and students went far beyond their normal roles to keep teaching and to provide learning experiences to students. It was an enormously challenging time.
"Our schools now face another challenge, to support our students to return to and stay in school safely, to re-engage them and support them to settle in, and progress in their learning," she commented.
The department has also made additional provision for special schools and classes, which deal with children with complex needs.
According to the Minister of State with responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan, the roadmap provides "great certainty on how schools will be able to operate to support students with special educational needs".
"Parents, teachers and SNAs can be assured that all appropriate measures will be taken to secure the safety and wellbeing of the children, while ensuring their education can continue. We know that these pupils have been impacted greatly by not being in a regular routine of school, and that they will need particular support at the time of transition back to school," she said.
The plan was broadly welcomed, however some concern has been expressed about the short lead-in time to implement it.
According to the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), the successful reopening of schools "will be an unprecedented and difficult undertaking".
It said that it is concerned "that the investment and resources being made available to schools may be insufficient" and that implementing the roadmap in the next five weeks "will require enormous efforts on the part of school communities, and school management in particular".
"In this context, ASTI is approaching the publication of the plan with caution. Over the coming weeks we will review its operation and effectiveness. We wish to make it clear that any tardiness in the delivery of supports necessary for the safe re-opening of schools would be unacceptable to ASTI," it noted.
The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) pointed out that as detailed as the roadmap is, "it still cannot cover every eventuality and any arising issues must be addressed by the department as soon as they are identified".
"This will be a massively complex operation and we will insist that schools and teachers be provided with every support and safeguard that is required," commented TUI president, Martin Marjoram.
The roadmap can be viewed here and here
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