1 million children returned to school in Ireland this week with a staggered return across school years as is normally the case for the first week of the return of Irish schools. The students return to a wholly different environment given the impact of Covid-19 and the ongoing public health concerns across the State. In recent weeks, increased numbers of infections have become the norm with an approx. 10 fold increase over the past month, mostly due to having large scale infection rates in food production centres. This resulted in a number of counties, Offaly, Laois and Kildare going into a form of lockdown which restricted movement out of these counties. While the lockdown in both Offaly and Laois has concluded it remains in place in Kildare. These events have served to remind a clearly worried population generally that Covid-19 is something we will have to live with for the foreseeable future. Public anxiety has been at the heart of an angry public response to an evening gathering of the now abolished Oireachtas (Parliament) Golf Society which has resulted in resignations of people who should have known better than to ignore public health guidance and the regulatory system.
Against this backdrop the Government has prioritised a return to education. It was their primary objective over the past 2 months and has seen, as a result, a considerable effort to get schools covid ready through a major and very rapid investment programme underpinned by considerable guidance on issues like addressing the needs of children with special needs, school transport, safe distancing and mask-wearing generally, increases in teacher numbers alongside precautionary policy addressing teaching staff with underlining health conditions.
The programme retrofitting the schools was, notwithstanding the short period available, by and large in place in the week prior to the return, largely thanks to the efforts of principals and local communities to make sure that this was the case. Additional facilities, isolation rooms, sanitation points, have been conjured up while teachers, special needs educators and other education support staff who were in short supply prior to covid generally seem to have become available. This has allowed for the replacement of staff with, high risk, underlying conditions who remain out of class on full pay for the foreseeable future.
In regard to mask-wearing, it is compulsory for all students in secondary schools with the exception of those with a medical condition, while similar conditions prevail in a much-reconfigured school transport system. A major increase in the school transport fleet has had to be put in place to address the increased demand, particularly, of second level students as full social distancing is now a requirement. For those parents with continuing concerns on the use of public transport they may provide the transport themselves and will be able to claim back the costs if, for example, they use their own transport to bring their children to school.
The return, thus far, seems to have largely gone smoothly, with only minor hiccups to date albeit that it is far too early to fully evaluate the prevailing conditions. It is also worth noting that there is a full expectation of cases of infection occurring, though there are procedures in place to address this eventuality.
Time will tell!