Hair­dressers use com­mon sense. Why can’t teach­ers?

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Jen­nifer O’Con­nell

There’s just one ques­tion for par­ents aris­ing out of the lat­est round of back-to-school pon­tif­i­cat­ing from the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Skills, the Health Pro­tec­tion Sur­veil­lance Cen­tre and the teach­ers’ unions. When are we school­ing or run­ning an im­promptu sum­mer camp while try­ing to hold down your other job. You know, the one you are ac­tu­ally qual­i­fied for and get paid to do.

Your chil­dren will be go­ing back to school in Sep­tem­ber. Maybe. Pos­si­bly on a part-time ba­sis. It will be an op­ti­mum re­open­ing, says the Min­is­ter. Or a phased one, say the unions. Un­less the in­terim ad­vice changes. Just how op­ti­mum, in­terim, part-time or phased will be de­ter­mined by ed­u­ca­tion stake­hold­ers over the com­ing weeks, ac­cord­ing to our new Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion, Norma Fo­ley.

Mean­while, the unions have been busily warn­ing that a full re­turn to school is un­likely, and some form of – trig­ger warn­ing – “blended learn­ing” will have to be part of it. Blended learn­ing is barely work­able for sec­ondary school stu­dents and, as teach­ers must know, a whim­si­cal fan­tasy for pri­mary school ones.

But let’s in­dulge the fan­tasy for a mo­ment. Let’s imag­ine that blended learn­ing, which 83 per cent of pri­mary par­ents op­pose for good rea­son, be­comes a per­ma­nent, mean­ing­ful al­ter­na­tive to in-class tu­ition. So far, at pri­mary level, what blended learn­ing has meant is weekly home­work be­ing emailed out by the school, to be com­pleted and sent back at the end of the week. In some schools, chil­dren have daily home­work tasks, which are re­turned cor­rected the next day. Some teach­ers go fur­ther, and up­load video and voice mes­sages for chil­dren. Cer­tain mostly fee-pay­ing es­tab­lish­ments, whose ex­is­tence is fever­ishly whis­pered about in par­ent What­sApp groups, are ru­moured to of­fer Zoom learn­ing all day, ev­ery day.

But in most cases, the ac­tual work of teach­ing dur­ing the hours be­tween 9.04am, when the chil­dren have fin­ished open­ing the Padlet or read­ing the email, and 2.30pm, is left to par­ents. If the unions or the Depart­ment want to keep blended learn­ing as part of the cur­ricu­lum, we’re go­ing to need a bet­ter plan.

It’s not clear whether the Min­is­ter was in­clud­ing par­ents when she re­ferred to stake­hold­ers. But she should have been. Sec­tion 15 of the 1998 Ed­u­ca­tion Act says schools have to be man­aged “for the ben­e­fit of the stu­dents and their par­ents” and ev­ery child is en­ti­tled to an ap­pro­pri­ate ed­u­ca­tion.

Nearly four months after schools closed, it’s time par­ents heard a bit more about what that ap­pro­pri­ate ed­u­ca­tion

‘‘

Most teach­ers are chomp­ing at the bit to get back to the class­room be­fore the ed­u­ca­tion gap be­comes an un­bridge­able chasm

will look like in Sep­tem­ber.

Will there be a cam­era in the class­room, so that teach­ers can teach the stu­dents at home and in class si­mul­ta­ne­ously for the full school day? Will the Depart­ment stump up for a lap­top, tablet, and wifi ac­cess for ev­ery child in the coun­try? What will be done to mo­ti­vate re­luc­tant re­mote learn­ers? Or those with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties? Or those who don’t have the phys­i­cal space or parental help to fo­cus on their ed­u­ca­tion? Will there be fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for par­ents – es­pe­cially those who re­duce their hours at work to teach their chil­dren at home? I say “par­ents”, but it will mostly be moth­ers.

The al­ter­na­tive, of course, is to re­open schools to all stu­dents, ev­ery day.

Pub­lic health guid­ance on so­cial dis­tanc­ing is the main rea­son unions say this can’t be done. They’ve ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of be­hav­ing as if teach­ers have “mag­i­cal im­mu­nity”. The TUI has threat­ened strike ac­tion if its mem­bers are ex­pected to go back to work in a man­ner that puts them at risk. Cer­tainly, the ad­vice pub­lished by the Health Pro­tec­tion Sur­veil­lance Cen­tre (HPSC) last week shows how tricky so­cial dis­tanc­ing in schools could be if the one-me­tre rule is main­tained.

Com­mon sense

But cru­cially, the HPSC also says that so­cial dis­tanc­ing “must be ap­plied in a prac­ti­cal way, recog­nis­ing that the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment can­not be dom­i­nated by a po­ten­tially coun­ter­pro­duc­tive fo­cus on this is­sue.” It talks about “main­tain­ing as much dis­tance as is rea­son­ably prac­ti­ca­ble.” What it is ac­tu­ally ask­ing for is for teach­ers to do what they’ve been trained to do, and ap­ply com­mon sense.

They should dis­cour­age chil­dren from get­ting too close, and en­sure ev­ery­one washes their hands of­ten. There’s no rea­son ev­ery­one over 11 shouldn’t wear a mask, other than those with a good health rea­son to avoid them. Teach­ers should be given PPE, and those who are med­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble should be al­lowed to stay home and teach re­motely.

In re­al­ity, there are lots of sec­tors get­ting on per­fectly well by ap­ply­ing com­mon sense to so­cial dis­tanc­ing, and none of them have mag­i­cal im­mu­nity ei­ther. Health­care work­ers didn’t threaten to strike when they had to go to work in a place where so­cial dis­tanc­ing isn’t pos­si­ble – they put on their PPE and went straight into the front­line. Hair­dressers strapped on their vi­sors and masks and got back to work en­thu­si­as­ti­cally this week. Home­care work­ers, GPs, pub­lic trans­port driv­ers, re­tail work­ers have been work­ing through­out.

Other than the vo­cal ones on Twit­ter, who shout down any dis­cus­sion on re­open­ing with roars of “teacher-bash­ing” – or, the trolls’ favourite, “why did you bother hav­ing kids?” – most teach­ers are chomp­ing at the bit to get back to the class­room be­fore the ed­u­ca­tion gap be­comes an un­bridge­able chasm. They know chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion can­not wait un­til it is 100 per cent safe. There’s no such thing. Yes, there was an out­break in Is­rael after schools re­opened. But schools are open in Aus­tria, Den­mark, Ger­many and Nor­way, and there have been no spikes.

Some pubs have al­ready re­opened, de­spite be­ing a petri dish for coro­n­avirus trans­mis­sion. And yet we still haven’t got any­thing like a sen­si­ble plan for schools re­open­ing, where the risk is mea­sur­ably much lower. Just some in­terim ad­vice about a prob­a­ble, op­ti­mum, pos­si­ble par­tial re­open­ing. Maybe.

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