School reopening plans to be discussed at Covid-19 committee

School buses and physical distancing in classrooms are among the topics to be raised when education officials appear at the Oireachtas Covid committee. File Picture.
By Jess Casey

Officials from the Department of Education will be grilled on plans for reopening schools when they appear at the Oireachtas Covid Committee tomorrow.

School transport, expected to present challenges in the new school year due to physical distancing limitations, as well the current progress on reopening schools are among the issues to be discussed.

This will be the first time officials from the department have appeared before the committee since interim guidelines around schools reopening were published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

As well as detailed cleaning regimes and strict measures around infection control, the guidelines also recommend a physical distance of one metre be maintained in classrooms.

These interim guidelines conflict with the Department of Education’s plans for a full return to school. Official advice it previously published warned that maintaining a one-metre distance would severely limit the number of days most students could attend each week.

Talks continued this week between teachers, principals, boards of management and the Department of Education. It's understood that issues around substitution, funding and the day-to-day running of schools remain outstanding. 

Call for certainty

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) has called for certainty around how teacher absences will be managed. The guidelines published by the HPSC advise teachers and students who have any symptoms of respiratory infection to not attend school. 

However, plans to 'merge' classes in the event of a teacher's absence would jeopardise infection control, the union believes. 

Earlier this week, school principals warned that funding is urgently needed to cover the costs of implementing the measures cited by the HPSC. Alan Mongey of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) also warned that foreign holidays could challenge children's return to school. 

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has also warned the committee that many secondary schools will not fully reopen in September if the current health advice remains in force. 

Kieran Christie, the general secretary of the ASTI, warned physical distancing in place outside of schools must also apply inside schools and classrooms. 

"From our perspective, there simply cannot be rules on physical distancing that apply outside a school in wider society or business that don’t apply inside a school," he said.