A back to school campaign for the reopening of schools was launched by the Department of Education and Skills on 27/7/2020. A huge amount of information has been provided and while the detailed guidance is welcome, it will be a challenge to get to grips with the sheer volume of information before the schools reopen at the end of next month.
There is a huge amount of work that will need to be undertaken at school management level, but I will not focus on this in this article. My aim is to present in a simple and clear way, some of the main things that primary teachers will need to be aware of and the on the ground changes that they will see in classrooms.
What has been made available?
First of all, there is a new webpage where all of the information can be found. There is an enormous amount of information on this webpage including the following:
- An extremely detailed 53 page roadmap for all schools for the full return to school. This roadmap sets out what the operation on schools will look like and the range of supports that will be available. It gives guidance on things such as:
- Public health advice
- COVID-19 response plans for schools
- Hand hygiene, cleaning regimes, physical distancing
- Provisions for getting children to school safely (school transport)
- Supports available to schools (inc. funding)
- Supporting wellbeing
- Guidance on learning for the school year 2020/2021
- Provision for very high-risk staff and students
- Communication arrangements
- There are further guidelines specific to either primary and special schools, or post primary schools which aim to provide guidance for the prevention, early detection and control of COVID-19 in schools. The 49-page primary and special school guidelines contain guidance and templates for:
- COVID-19 response plan and policy
- Staff training
- Changes to school layout
- Pre-return to work questionnaire
- Control measures to prevent COVID-19 in schools
- Risk assessment
- Contact tracing
- Checklists for things such as managing a suspected case of COVID-19 and cleaning
- Guidelines for supporting the wellbeing of school communities as schools reopen.
- Guidelines on curriculum which outline key areas that should be focused on upon the return to school.
- Illustrative classroom layouts showing how pods can be created in primary school and special class settings.
What are some of the main things that teachers need to know?
- A full return to school for all will take place (apart from very high-risk pupils and staff).
- Children under 13 are not required to wear face masks. Adults are not recommended to wear PPE unless they are working in a setting where physical distancing is not possible or with a suspected COVID-19 case.
- Physical distancing is not required from JI – 2nd
- It is up to individual schools to decide on the exact configurations for how physical distancing will work from 3rd– 6th.
- Each class group will be a “bubble” and will have very limited interaction with other class bubbles. This will mean things like staggered yard times, no whole school assemblies, and activities with other classes such as reading buddies will not be allowed.
- Within each class there will be small “pods” of students, who will need to be physically distanced from other pods in the class. The advice is to have 1m between each pod and between the individual children in the pods where possible.
- All non-essential furniture in a classroom should be removed to create extra space for distancing between pods.
- The teacher’s desk should be 1m, or ideally 2m away from student desks.
- In terms of SET and SNA allocation to different classes, as much as possible the same staff should work with the same class bubbles and should avoid moving between class bubbles.
- Avoid sharing class resources/ materials between children in different class pods.
- Hand sanitisers will be provided for each classroom and entry/ exit point of the school.
- Complete COVID-19 induction training to be provided by the DoES.
- Complete a Return to Work form which will be provided by the principal.
- Change your classroom layout to maximise physical distancing.
- Certain aspects of the curriculum are to be prioritised initially i.e. SPHE, PE, Language and mathematics.
- A big emphasis will be placed on well-being. The key message is “slow down to catch up”. Take time to settle back into school rather than ploughing ahead with curriculum work.
- The month of September will be focused on settling in, establishing routines and catching up on missed learning from the previous year.
- SPHE should focus on the promotion of personal hygiene including proper hand washing. Ensure that Stay Safe and RSE are taught early in the year.
- PE should from a significant component of timetable as it contributes to well-being. Children should work individually or in their pods, use minimal equipment and use out door spaces if possible.
- A big emphasis should be placed on language and talk and discussion.
- Arts education and SESE can take place through integrated learning experiences.
- Use the outdoor environment more often when planning for curriculum work e.g. nature trails.
- Use play as a methodology is important for developing resilience and wellbeing. Toys should be cleaned regularly e.g. weekly. Children should not share toys such as PlayDoh.
- Curriculum reforms and related CPD have been paused.
- The inspectorate will focus on advisory work in schools during term 1.
- Schools are to be prepared for further school closures if there is an outbreak of COVID-19.
- Standardised tests will not take place until May 2021.
Before the publication of these guidelines, I know many teachers, parents and students feared that there may not be a full return to school and that social distancing requirements would mean that children could only attend on alternate days or for a limited number of hours each day. There was also a fear that blended learning, where some content would be provided in school and some through online teaching, would be a major feature. So many will be relieved that these guidelines provide for a full return to school. However, it needs to be acknowledged that there will be significant challenges for schools in implementing these guidelines and while staff will do their utmost to follow the procedures as outlined, some of the recommendations may not be feasible in practice and a great deal of flexibility and ingenuity will be required.