I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today and to engage with it on the planning to support the reopening of the schools sector. The then Taoiseach’s announcement on 12 March of the closure of all schools, colleges, universities and other training and learning facilities was the commencement of a series of challenges across the education sector as a result of Covid-19. Those challenges continue to be managed by the Department in partnership with the education partners and a range of stakeholders.
The interests of students and their families, as well as the safety of the staff in the sector, have been the paramount considerations throughout as we have worked through the challenges before us. Currently, the number one priority for the Department and the wider schools sector is to reopen our schools as fully, normally and safely as possible at the start of the new school year.
In the reopening of our schools, we will be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders including the school management bodies and staff representatives, as well as students and parents. Since the Department received the interim public health advice from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in June, it has been published by the Minister and made available to schools across the country.
The receipt of the public health advice has allowed us to commence an intense period of engagement with school management and staff representatives, which in turn has allowed us to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There is no doubt that the Minister, the Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopening as normal in the new school year in late August and September.
The public health recommendations will be updated as the summer progresses. The current advice provides an excellent platform for engagement with all of the education partners towards detailed planning for reopening our schools. The recommendations recognise that different approaches are necessary for children at different ages.
Our engagement with stakeholders, which is continuing right throughout this week, including today, has been open and frank with everyone, acknowledging that we need to work together. We are collectively focused on working through the detail of what the return to school will look like for all schools. The range of school settings presents both opportunities and challenges. Flexibility or agility in how we respond will be key. We are working through with school managers, leaders and staff how best they can be supported to not only open schools but to ensure they remain open.
There are logistical challenges to manage in respect of physical distancing arrangements, school transport and enhancing cleaning and hygiene routines, for example. There are well-being aspects to be identified and provided for students, their families and staff. There are curricular challenges which are being worked through in conjunction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. There are also assessment matters to consider in terms of the students undertaking State examinations in 2021. Work is advancing intensely across all of these strands.
One of the key elements to ensuring that schools can remain open once they reopen is to prevent Covid from getting into a school in the first instance. This will mean students, their families and staff playing their roles in keeping the virus out of their school by ensuring those who have symptoms or suspect they have the virus stay out of school, by maintaining best practice in terms of hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette in school, as well as by minimising social contacts and respecting physical distancing practices.
The public health advice recognises that physical distancing in a school context has some specific elements. It acknowledges:
The principle of distancing can be usefully applied in the school setting, allowing for some flexibility when needed. However, it must be applied in a practical way, recognising that the learning environment cannot be dominated by a potentially counterproductive focus on this issue.
Physical distancing measures fall into two broad categories, those being, increasing separation and decreasing interaction.
Reopening our schools is not just a matter of achieving a certain minimum physical distancing. It is also about getting students re-engaged fully with learning, socialising with their peers, and for some preparing for examinations, for others transitioning to school life or a different level in terms of moving from primary to post-primary. Students need the support of their families, teachers and school staff in readjusting to school life and physical learning environments again.
It is realistic to predict that all students, teachers and parents will experience a broad range of feelings on the return to school. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but also anxiety and fear. That is understandable given these circumstances, and the Department is developing with other stakeholders a response to support the well-being in our school communities.
Our focus has been on working with the stakeholders so that we can reopen our schools safely. We know that there will be costs associated with reopening, not just in terms of hand sanitisation or cleaning regimes, but in terms of teacher and SNA substitution and support for school leaders. We are currently defining what is needed and preparing cost estimates for these elements. I assure the committee that there is full engagement with the stakeholders and that everyone is committed to concluding the scoping and planning phases by the end of this month so that schools have sufficient time to prepare at a local level for reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication.