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Is it sensible to fully reopen schools?


For several years, I gave lectures three times a week to approximately 400 students in a hot basement lecture theatre with no windows. I never had any hesitation in doing so during outbreaks of mumps, Swine flu, Sars and various other infections including during pregnancy. Covid, however, has disrupted everything. Education will not or cannot be delivered as normal in the autumn.

Schools are scheduled to start reopening on August 27th. Yet Irish children and teenagers recently heard their Government state that clusters of Covid are “guaranteed” in schools. Promises of rapid testing and other measures cannot alleviate the anxiety this is causing for many parents and pupils. Letters from schools contain very regimented routines and rules.

Early data from research conducted after schools closed suggested children and young people had little or no risk of contracting or spreading Covid. Loud voices consequently insisted schools must reopen at all costs or parents would take to the streets. Families, schools and students were undoubtedly ill prepared for full-time “home” schooling on March 12th.

New and different research findings on the virus, children and young people, including in countries where schools have recently reopened, are raising new questions. Dr Zoe Hyde in a new paper submitted to the Medical Journal of Australia found “seroprevalence and contact tracing studies show children are similarly vulnerable and transmit the virus to a meaningful degree”. Large clusters in school settings have been reported internationally, she writes, with implications for the control of community transmission.

The recent report of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control referred to by the Minister for Health states that “when symptomatic, children shed virus in similar quantities to adults and can infect others in a similar way to adults. It is unknown how infectious asymptomatic children are. While very few significant outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools have been documented, they do occur, and may be difficult to detect due to the relative lack of symptoms in children”.

Wider implications

Such studies reiterate that children and young people often (though not always) get a mild dose or no symptoms but will parents, grandparents or teachers interacting in school networks experience the same if they transmit the virus so effectively? Reopening schools has implications for all groups and generations in society, not just for children.

The Government plan to reopen schools, premised on comparatively large class sizes, is cold comfort for parents who are concerned about such new research findings and the greater vulnerability of some children and adult family members to Covid. A high possibility of disruptive lockdowns or additional school closures due to the clusters “guaranteed” in schools, with no properly developed, parallel e-learning alternative in place, is a further concern.

Not all parents were or are loudly clamouring for schools to reopen at all costs, far from it.

Universities are invariably adopting a hybrid approach to “live with the virus” in October; there will be “some” face to face and some online teaching. But why not in schools?

A hybrid approach to schooling in Ireland can and should be made available as an additional, parallel option to enable some children to stay at home because of any condition or to protect a vulnerable family member. This would allow others to attend school part-time or full-time, as is the case in several states in the US where rates of Covid are significant. The vast majority of parents who were recently surveyed by the Washington Postand by schools chose part time or fully remote learning as their preferred option for the coming school year.

Why can this not be implemented in Ireland? Opening schools full time has clear implications.

Such flexibility would suit different caregivers and categories of workers and would avoid forcing more than one million children back into crowded Irish schools in two weeks. Over time, confidence in all children attending school full time would grow, especially if such a model contributed to suppressing the virus – which is what we all want.

Online alternatives

To proceed with the July 27th plan without acknowledging subsequent studies of how children and young people get or spread Covid – and without preparing at least some online alternatives to full-time education – is indefensible and unwise.

Infinitely better digital learning options than the ones provided in March to June 2020 can be achieved but only with additional supports, experts and co-ordination. Individual schools and teachers cannot do this alone.

This is not to replace school or to remove the option of full-time attendance in school; it is to provide a temporary (hopefully brief) and sensible contingency plan in the midst of a pandemic and continuity for students. Parents should also be allowed to make this choice for their own health and wellbeing knowing the State supports them. Not all parents were or are loudly clamouring for schools to reopen at all costs, far from it. They should be heard equally.

All these issues should be considered now, not in September when the Dáil reconvenes and when it is too late. If schools cannot or should not reopen fully now or at any future point during this pandemic, what is plan B? Nursing homes, workplaces dominated by migrants and direct provision are the institutional casualties of this pandemic thus far. We should tread carefully and very slowly in education. Health is wealth.

Linda Connolly is professor of sociology at Maynooth University

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