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Leona O'Neill: Schools are re-opening but Covid-19 is still a threat to our children

With schools due to re-open at the beginning of the new term, many parents are still anxious about their children's safety from the threat of coronavirus even as they feel some relief at the prospect of a return to some sort of 'normal' routine, writes Leona O'Neill

Schools will need to ensure their classrooms are sanitised when pupils return in September

SUMMER is almost over and, as it stands, all our children will return to school full time at the beginning of the new term as normal.

Last week, Education Minister Peter Weir made the announcement, stating that schools will keep most pupils in whole class bubbles to limit the mixing that normally goes on during a normal school day.

Parents across the land ­– who have spent the last few months abiding by the restrictions, keeping two metres apart, keeping their distance from family members and friends, being told large gatherings are extremely bad – are rightly anxious about sending their children into an environment where hundreds of people are together under one roof and that social distancing measures between pupils will be relaxed.

Teachers are rightly concerned for their own health and safety also and teaching unions have warned that plans are 'unworkable'.

There is no doubt the lock down and coronavirus crisis has been really hard on our kids. It's just not natural to be kept away from your friends and confined to your home, particularly in your teenage years. The mental health crisis that will follow these most surreal times will be mammoth.

Our children will need help to adjust to whatever normal now is and to process what has been the most bizarre and terrifying five months of their lives. I think a return to school will certainly signal a return to normal life, but we have to be cautious. The virus has not been eradicated. We will have outbreaks. That is a certain risk. We can only hope that it is not our children and our families who will be impacted.

A study published last week concluded that there is little evidence that coronavirus is transmitted in schools. Royal College of Paediatrics president Professor Russell Viner, who is also a member of the British government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The Sunday Times that the report by Public Health England would help put parents' minds at rest as we prepare for a full reopening of schools after lockdown.

The study looked at 100 UK schools, centering on around 20,000 pupils and teachers during April through to July. In England, some schools began limited reopening on June 1, bringing in early years and primary pupils. I presume those were the test subjects, as most of the rest of the schools were closed.

In America, where the virus is currently out of control, schools have been back for over a week. On the first day back, one student at North Paulding High School in Georgia posted a photograph from the corridor between classes which showed pupils crammed together. Some students were wearing masks, many were not, and social distancing was not possible. Nine people – six students and three staff members – tested positive for Covid-19 this weekend.

Children can get Covid-19. Nearly 100,000 American children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks in July according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In almost five million reported cases in the US, more than 338,000 were kids.

However, America is in a very different situation than ourselves. We have very low numbers at present. But this virus is hugely unpredictable and there is some concern about the growing number of cases. Last Thursday, the Department of Health reported 43 new cases – the highest daily total since May 13. A further 15 cases were confirmed on Friday.

Queen's University has that announced masks are now compulsory for staff and students on campus. It coincides with face coverings being made mandatory in shops and any enclosed public space. Perhaps masks are the answer in our schools also. Best of luck to the teachers policing that in our primary schools and to the kids wearing them when the inevitable heat wave hits on the first week back as per normal.

I think we all feel that our schools need to open for the sake of everyone's sanity. But they need to open safely. Parents need to be sure and reassured that their children will be safe. I hope those in power can make the right decision.

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