What will it take for schools to reopen safely?

17 Aug 2020

The new back to school essentials will include hand sanitiser and face masks. Image: © Ольга Ратова/Stock.adobe.com

The reopening of schools in a matter of weeks might require some collective sacrifice but it’s essential if we’re to weather the stormy economic forecast to come, writes Elaine Burke.

At the cusp of one of the most critical steps in reopening Ireland’s economy, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) faces some difficult decision-making.

Schools reopening is an essential step for work to continue in some kind of normal capacity under the dark cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic, which isn’t going to abate any time soon.

Despite some relaxing of both national measures and individual attitudes in recent weeks, the virus is still among us. And, most worryingly, cases are on the rise.

In the last two weeks – within which most of the country has had the opportunity for some relief, taking holidays or socialising even with physical distancing in effect – newly confirmed cases of Covid-19 reached more than 1,000. At the weekend, we returned to a truly terrifying three-figure count of 200 reported cases on Saturday 15 August.

‘Despite some relaxing of both national measures and individual attitudes in recent weeks, the virus is still among us’

The period of grace some of us have briefly enjoyed could well be about to come to an end as NPHET meets to discuss this concerning rise in case numbers. With three counties known to have clusters of cases currently in partial lockdown, the Government has shown it is willing to take serious and drastic action where needed to contain the virus. So what will the next step be, at a time when getting kids back to school is an utmost priority?

Another nationwide lockdown, similar to what former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar first announced in March, could be an inevitable requirement. It might take that sacrifice to ensure the safe return of school students. And it will be worth it, as the consequences of failing in this next step in the reopening plan will be dire. Work needs to return to as near to normal as possible if we are to face a winter of difficult economic circumstances with any hope.

While plenty of work has been ongoing throughout the summer and there are currently childcare facilities operating, these are at max capacity – and so are many parents. Not all parents and guardians have had the safe luxury of availing of childcare since these services first closed in March, and some may not have been able to work from home at all amid this situation.

For working parents, six months of balancing work at home with family life will take its toll, and it can’t be expected to continue indefinitely. Many employers have already prepared for remote working to continue for up to a year at least, and it’s highly likely that a significant number of employees will demand that it continues forever. The routine and relief that schools provide are vital to enable this. It simply won’t be possible if parents are overburdened with the role of at-home education supervisor on top of everything else.

And that’s not to mention what children have gone through during this period of global anxiety. Even though it will be under new circumstances and with essential new behaviours to be learned, the return to school will be of great benefit to many of them.

But it has to be done right and it has to take priority. And if that means the rest of us must bunker down once again until we’re sure of a safe return, so be it.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.