Use of shed as isolation room in Westmeath primary school prompts anger as schools return 3 months ago

Use of shed as isolation room in Westmeath primary school prompts anger as schools return

Labour education spokesperson Aodhán O’Ríordáin commented: “For the love of God. This is why package for re-opening should have been announced in May at the latest.”

The Department of Education has come in for criticism after it emerged that a garden shed would be used as an isolation area at a primary school in Westmeath due to a lack of available space elsewhere.

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RTÉ journalist Ciaran Mullooly posted a picture of a garden shed being used as an isolation facility at Clonbonny National School, outside Athlone in Westmeath, a development which has prompted anger amongst parents and staff, as well as the wider public.

Reacting to the post on Wednesday, Labour TD and party spokesperson on education, enterprise and trade, Aodhán O’Ríordáin, said: “For the love of God. This is why package for re-opening should have been announced in May at the latest.

“We won’t get to ask the Minister about this until next week at the earliest.”

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O’Ríordáin was referring to the Dáil's return ahead of schedule next week and to Minister for Education Norma Foley, who did appear on RTÉ Prime Time on Tuesday night and on Ireland AM on Wednesday to address the return to schools this week.

Principal of Clonbonny National School Joan Donnelly told RTÉ that she was not happy with having to use the shed as an isolation facility, but that the school had no space.

Donnelly added that 37 children are sharing a classroom at the school and that there is not a distance of one metre between desks. Donnelly said that it was the best the school could do and that the Department of Education had not responded to the school’s appeal for more space to be provided.

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In a statement to JOE on the matter, a Department of Education spokesperson said: “The Department is in contact with the school in relation to its accommodation issues. The configuration of classes may need to be reviewed by the school given that it has five classroom teachers (one of whom is a Teaching Principal) for the 125 pupils.”

In a letter to parents published on the school website on 20 August, a letter which details changes to the physical environment at the school and entry points to the premises for the various classes, Principal Donnelly wrote: "The BOM (Board of Management) and school leadership have been meeting this week to ensure a safe return to school for all children. We have now finalised and ratified our Covid policy and Response Plan and it is available to view on our website.

"We have made changes to our physical environment here at the school. All furniture except for desks and chairs has now been removed from the classrooms to ensure children have maximum space and to enable us to socially distance within our class bubbles."

In relation to isolation areas in schools, the Department of Education statement added: “If a child develops symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 while in school, they should tell their teacher or designated staff member straight away. They will be taken to a designated isolation area within the school building.

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“Ideally, the isolation area should be a separate room (resource permitting), but it may be an area within a classroom where a distance of at least two metres from all other people in the room can be strictly maintained.

“The Department brought forward to August the payment of the annual minor works grant to primary schools, totalling approximately €30 million, which typically is paid in either December/January each year. In addition, an enhanced minor work grant, which matches the 2019 payment, has also been issued directly to schools.

“This amounts to €60 million which has now been issued directly to primary schools in minor works grants since the publication of the Roadmap. A minor works grant amounting to €42m issued to post-primary schools in the free scheme.

“The minor works grant provides schools with the necessary flexibility to implement necessary physical measures in their school quickly to enable the full return to school.

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"These measures include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts, short term rental of additional space etc. Given that each school setting is different, individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate re-configuration measures for their school which are necessary to facilitate school re-opening.”

Main image via Clonbonny National School