John Kearney, CEO, Cavan Monaghan Eduation and Training Board.

Decision on schools expected today

Schools are expected to remain closed for "another week at least", a government source has told The Anglo-Celt.

Confirmation came ahead of a Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 yesterday (Tuesday). Members were expected to consider a proposal to close schools until February 1, despite the Government's long-held objective of keeping them open in its Living with Covid plan.

A decision on when schools will reopen is set to be officially announced later today (Wednesday), following a full cabinet meeting.

The advice coming from NPHET and CMO Dr Tony Holohan is that with the very high levels of transmission, the protection of schools and education may not currently be possible.

Meanwhile, the head of CMETB, the largest educational provider in the region, says the “greatest challenge” facing teachers and pupils alike is “not knowing”.

With vast rises in new Covid cases being reported daily across Cavan, Monaghan and the rest of the region also, CMETB CEO John Kearney accepts there is a growing sense of pessimism that schools and colleges will reopen next Monday, on January 11.

Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, supports the NPHET belief that the continued operation of primary and secondary schools could only be allowed in circumstances where the levels of community transmission of the virus can first be addressed.

Mr Kearney agrees.

Students and teachers at schools across Cavan and Monaghan are now coming into their third lockdown. The first was successfully navigated predominantly through remote learning and the provision of online resources. However, Mr Kearney is in no doubt that an absence from the classroom is not the “long-term” answer to the question posed to educational provision by this pandemic.

“Particularly for younger students. The first [lockdown] on March 12, when we look back on it now, yes we were getting ready for it, but when the announcement was made, it was very sharp. Just like the country, we thought we were going into that for two to three weeks. We had no conceptual thinking it was going to be months as it became. We had no notion the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert were going to be affected. When we look back on it now, with hindsight, it was an evolving nightmare and we just continued to work through it. The second lockdown we were far more prepared, and the schools remained open. Apart from one or two shaky moments, from September to December worked well.”

Mr Kearney states that everyone remains hopeful that schools and colleges will reopen as planned. “But as we talk, that is a situation that is very much evolving, and will continue to remain under review so long as new case numbers continue to rise.”

Particularly seeing how successful educational services were delivered during the second lockdown, Mr Kearney believes that educators have earned “credit” to show they can dutifully form part of the solution to ensure a managed return to some form of normality.

“Remote learning is fine, but it is not beneficial for the long-term education, especially of younger people. It has been a challenging time for them particularly, wearing PPE, adapting to a new and evolving experience, but even still it has been a far more satisfactory experience than staying at home. Long term, in terms of their overall emotional, pastoral, and social development, even mental well-being, remote learning is not in their best interests.”

CMETB has 11 second-level schools under its remit, and two third-level colleges. Since the start of the pandemic, the organisation has managed its own Covid response by adapting to changes led by members attached to its Covid-19 Response Management Team.

He sees the largest challenge facing schools now is the “unknowns” of what may or may not happen, particularly in the short-term.

'Last lap of pandemic'

“It's obvious we’re in the last lap of the pandemic now, and it’s appearing to be the most challenging one too with the rise of numbers. The rising numbers, what that means is the quandary of not knowing. Will that high level of community transmission effect parents' ability to get children to school? Closer to home for us, will it be in the recruitment of teachers, and the other uncertainties that could unfold next week and the weeks beyond?”

To that extent, Mr Kearney is confident that CMETB has sufficient contingency plans in place, and remains optimistic if schools were to reopen next week as planned, they would have the necessary staffing contingent available.

“We have been able to successfully recruit. We haven’t been found wanting. This again though is an evolving situation and we will keep watching what advice is given. Whatever scenario is thrown at us, we will deal with it and do so effectively, to the best of our available abilities.”

With vaccinations coming on stream and teachers included in the tiered schedule for receiving the jab, Mr Kearney is encouraging staff uptake.

“It's inevitable there will be a certain amount of trepidation around the taking of the vaccine, but I’d be hopeful with the continued uptake that the fears and apprehensions would be allayed and ultimately, long-term, next year we’d be seeing a natural return to life where we can all remain safe and well.”