Could local communities do more to ensure a return-to-school for 5-12-year-olds?

—By Bridget Reilly

Local communities may have more capacity than they realise to ensure accessible and safe education for their 5-12-year-olds.

The current pandemic is global, it requires cooperation across nations, and many of its properties are unknown to us. So we have been leaving it to governments and health and scientific experts to make our decisions for us and tell us what to do. Indeed, here in Ireland, we have been well served by our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, and Minister for Health Simon Harris, and by the many others involved, in their diligent, caring, and balanced judgement calls made on our behalf.

Now, however, the time has surely come for individuals and local communities to take back a degree of power.

Outdoor SchoolOur 5–12-year-olds need their local communities in a way they have never needed them before. Our 5–12-year-olds need communities to get serious about devising a plan for their education that will also safeguard their health. Who is better qualified to set that ball rolling than the very communities in which the children live and go to school?

When the Titanic was sinking, it was the children who were piled first into lifeboats and shooed off to safety – a heart-warming thought. (The women also were saved before the men – but that is a discussion for another day.) The point is that our children need us to keep them safe, and they need us to provide them with an education.

If thinking inside the box no longer works, we have to think outside it. Irish people have always been inventive. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, so determined were they that children would be educated that they set up the famous ‘hedge schools’, which they held in barns or in the open air. We need some of that determination and inventiveness today.

In every parish around the country there are buildings that lie idle during a good part of the day – community halls, churches, sports halls, and the like. Is there any reason why these could not be harnessed temporarily as teaching locations for small groups, thus enabling social distancing for everyone?

Or would it not be possible to quickly erect open-sided marquee-style spaces that would provide a roof and at the same time allow adequate circulation of fresh air? And what is wrong with the great outdoors?

Likewise, in every parish around the country, almost certainly there are people, uncompromised health-wise, who are willing to volunteer as teacher helpers, to supervise children who have been assigned work while a teacher teaches rotating small groups.

Is there any reason why, in every parish in Ireland, the school principal, the board of management, the parents’ committee, the priest (if there is one), and whoever else is interested, would not come together to devise a strategy that will ensure safe schooling for the primary-school children of the parish?

If a local community is able to present a good plan, there is always the hope that the government will match it with funding.

What are we waiting for?

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