After confirmation yesterday that schools and colleges would remain closed for most pupils up to the scheduled half-term break at the end of May, Education Minister Tracey Vallois provided an update on preparations for a possible reopening.
Senator Vallois said that safely reopening schools formed part of the safe exit plan expected to be outlined by Chief Minister John Le Fondré today.
‘It’s a complex matter and it will be crucial that we follow public health advice about physical distancing and mass gatherings,’ she said. ‘We will be looking at other jurisdictions and also using data that comes from increased testing and contact tracing.’
The minister cited New Zealand, where schools have recently reopened, as one of the countries being looked at, with possible options including pupils being taught in ‘bubbles’ of ten or fewer, staggered break times, enhanced hygiene measures and at least one metre’s distance in the classroom.
Senator Vallois said that schools would be likely to have lower capacities, with the exact numbers varying according to the circumstances of each school. Two primary schools where children of essential workers are being taught – Grouville and Les Landes – are already close to their capacity.
Additional consideration will be given to the return of children whose parents are considered vulnerable.
Teaching unions have expressed concern about the challenges involved in reopening Jersey’s schools.
‘I think it’s going to be very challenging to get back, and certainly you won’t be able to put 30 pupils in a classroom straight away,’ said NASUWT Jersey representative Marina Mauger. ‘Teachers have been brilliant during this period, with stacks of them volunteering to come into schools to teach vulnerable pupils and the children of essential workers, but health and safety issues will need to be addressed as part of reopening.’
Although Mrs Mauger said she felt that senior civil servants had kept the NASUWT well informed through daily conference calls, NEU President Brendan Carolan was less impressed. ‘The government’s idea of involving us appears to be telling unions after decisions have been made, with little room for discussion or input, probably due to the speed that they were working at, but this still leaves members unsure of what might come next,’ he said.
The NEU is also concerned that supply teachers have not been accommodated within the government’s package of support for Islanders who have suffered financial hardship.
Mr Carolan estimated that around 40 of the NEU’s 500 members were employed as supply teachers by the government and were being treated differently to zero-hours employees in the private sector.
‘Supply teachers make a very important contribution and to treat them in this way is short-sighted and unfair,’ he said.