Sinn Féin education spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has said that the Government should stop floating kites and engaging in idle speculation on reopening schools. He added that health and educational considerations needed to come before misplaced pride.
The Cork South Central TD was responding to comments by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in which he stated that reopening schools would be “among the safest things” that can be done in the next few months. Those comments were echoed by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who stated that schools “had to reopen in September.”
Ó Laoghaire has encouraged further analysis of reports that suggest children are not substantially contributing to the spread of Covid-19 before setting out any timetable for schools to reopen.
Speaking today, Teachta Ó Laoghaire said: “We all share the aim of reopening our schools, we know that it will bring huge benefits. There is no doubt that the ongoing closures are having a negative effect on children’s education, particularly to those at a young developmental age, while home-schooling is placing a strain on parents.
“But they need to be reopened with a plan in place and we cannot get ahead of ourselves here either. We have had grand announcements from government before, such as the declaration that the Leaving Cert would be held in July, that proved unachievable.
“If it is possible to reopen in September, then that should be the goal. But making that an immovable position is foolish in the context of a global pandemic.
“The Taoiseach’s comments suggest that some of the rationale he sees are that it would reflect poorly on us if we were the last to open our schools. Misplaced pride of that kind is not what we need here.
“His comments yesterday were based on HIQA and reports from overseas, which suggest that children are not substantially contributing to the spread of Covid-19. Those reports, while encouraging, need to be explored further before we rush to set a date to reopen schools.
“The Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, suggested as much yesterday when he stated that these reports are based on a small number of studies and a small number of children, which indicated that the scientific community around the world had not come to a unanimous conclusion on the issue. I would urge the Taoiseach and Department of Education to heed that warning.
“If we are to open schools, we have to be absolutely certain it is the right thing to do in terms of the health and safety, and crucially, the education of our children.
“The reality is that in many of our schools, there is nowhere near the capacity to admit all pupils at one time in a socially-distanced way. So if schools are coming back, one day a week or however, we need a plan for how education will be delivered in that context.
“I am also conscious of the images I see from countries where schools have reopened and the kind of social distancing in place. Teachers and parents have expressed a lot of concern about this to me. A return to school needs to be a relatively positive experience for children, not a negative, and it needs to be educationally sound.
“What we also don’t want is another situation where we have got the hopes of parents and children up by setting a return date that might not be realised.
“Let’s not forget that the first recorded case of Covid-19 in the state came from a secondary school student. So while recent reports are encouraging, further analysis is needed on the rates of transmission between children, teenagers and the wider community as whole.
“All stakeholders, including teachers unions and parent associations, must also be part of the conversation about what ‘the new normal’ in schools will look like when it is appropriate for them to reopen too.
“Teachers, parents and pupils all have varying concerns about the ability to social distance and maintain high levels of hygiene while maintaining educational standards. These are great challenges that require a collective discussion. A return to school needs to be based on a criteria, and a threshold, after which we know it is right in terms of health and education to do so.
“Those concerns must be thrashed out and allayed before rushing ahead setting dates to reopen.”