We have one chance to get this right

OPINION: The government will get one chance – and one chance only – to get it right when it reopens the schools after the Covid-19 lockdown but, writes Kerry Sinn Fein TD Pa Daly, the approach being taken is impractical and if it fails, it will rest heavily on our children’s shoulders for a long time

I AM disappointed with the narrow and impractical approach the Department of Education has taken with the interim recommendations for the re-opening of schools and educational facilities.

There has been a lack of awareness about current classroom size and settings and a lack of engagement with related stakeholders such as educators, childcare, mental health and transportation experts.

The physical and mental health effects will be profound on children and society

We have been living with this pandemic for 17 weeks now and our students are set to return to school in eight weeks. We were promised comprehensive guidelines at the start of June and it is extremely disappointing to see Minister Norma Foley produce a 31-page document – written by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre –  as the first set of re-opening guidelines from her department.

The burden being placed on schools, principals and teachers to implement the recommendations without additional support and funding is, frankly, out of touch with our new reality.

The guidance relies solely on physical distancing and hygiene measures and paints a stark classroom picture of students sitting in rows, face forward, rarely leaving their seat or classroom. The physical and mental health effects of such an approach will be profound on our children and society.

Newly appointed Education Minister Norma Foley

Music and singing will be lost in our schools based on these guidelines. Sports activities simply defer to HPSC guidelines for club sports activities with no accounting for a school setting.

The minister must do as she promised and engage all stakeholders in robust and transparent discussions. I have seen other countries propose practical solutions such as funding for ventilation systems in gyms and music rooms so children are not further disadvantaged.

Even more disappointing was to see is the school transport section consist solely of five bullet points, one of which states “Children should disembark one at a time”.  These guidelines have been rushed out and did not include the appropriate stakeholders.

With teachers’ unions expressing valid concerns over their ability to return to the normal school day safely, it is tone deaf to herald these guidelines as a good start.

Minister Foley must immediately establish a working group with all necessary stakeholders to ensure that our children can return to school safely in an environment that accounts for the whole child and their needs. More imagination is needed, particularly for Kerry schools.

We have one chance to get this right. Our failure will rest heavily on our children’s shoulders for a long time.

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