With the two-metre social distancing rule in place, a maximum of just nine students can sit in one classroom
Schools across the country are desperate for guidance on how pupils can safely return in August, with a number of principals calling for a reduction to the two-metre social distancing rule.
In an email to parents Methodist College principal Scott Naismith said the Belfast school can only reopen in a "meaningful way" if the guidelines change to one metre, in line with the World Health Organisation's recommendation.
Elsewhere in counties Armagh and Down, a number of school principals have backed Mr Naismith and called on the Education Authority (EA) and the Department of Education to provide clear guidance on how pupils can safely return.
Last week Education Minister Peter Weir revealed that pupils in key years, such as those taking GCSEs or A-levels, and those transitioning from primary to secondary schools, will be the first to return.
A wider, phased return for other pupils is to follow in September, but Mr Weir said that would involve a mix of learning at school and from home.
Principal of Lurgan College Trevor Robinson explained that the grammar, which has 440 pupils, has taken measurements of each classroom to work out how many students can sit together.
With the two-metre social distancing rule in place, a maximum of just nine students can sit in one classroom.
If the guidance were reduced to 1.5 metres, Mr Robinson said that, on average, half a class could sit together.
"The two-metre ruling is incompatible with an indoor type of experience, which we would call school," he continued. "It's hard enough for us with senior pupils but I would really, really struggle to see how you could actually stop nursery or lower primary school children from going within two metres of each other. Telling them that they can't and that they must not go close to their friends could actually do psychological damage to those children."
Mr Robinson added that Lurgan College has run a successful home school remote learning programme but admitted nothing comes close to having pupils in school.
The biggest challenge facing schools is figuring out how pupils can return safely, and Mr Robinson said principals are relying on guidance from the EA and the department as to how they can carry that out.
"There will be two things happening: there'll be remote learning and there'll be in-class teaching going on," he stated. "We're going to look to the department to explain exactly what they mean by their concept of blended learning.
"We also need guidance to social distancing in terms of layout of classrooms, pupils lining up outside classrooms, management of the canteen and transportation.
"Transportation is a big issue because pupils can't all be arriving in buses. We are all keen to try and get schools back to normal as soon as we possibly can, but we must be led by the EA and the Department of Education." Principal of Kilkeel High School Victor Coert said he simply cannot put any plans in place for the eventual return of his 697 students as he has not received any directive from the EA or department. "Until we are told what is expected of us, we really cannot plan for anything. That's the difficulty," he said. "Are we supposed to have a one-way system in school? Are we supposed to have cleaning products? All those sorts of things, we just don't know what they expect of us."
He also agreed that the two-metre social distancing rule should be reduced but said nothing can be done without the go-ahead from the Education Minister.
Meanwhile, principal of Stranmillis Primary School in south Belfast Jackie Wallace added that social distancing requirements must be led by health officials, but it will be "next to impossible" to get young children to stay apart.
"I'm putting together a planned approach for return but the problem is we don't have the full information or clarity regarding what's to be expected, what the social distancing measures will be, how many children will be expected to return in the classroom, will there be specific classes returning or will all children be returning, and what will be the proposed date for starting," he said.
"There's a lot of questions, a lot of variables, and that makes planning difficult."