Parents and staff at a national school outside Athlone in Co Westmeath have strongly criticised the Department of Education over the back to school preparations.

They said there has been a lack of assistance in helping the school come up with more space to teach classes at a social distance and provide an appropriate isolation area for children who have Covid-19 symptoms.

If any children are identified with symptoms at Clonbonny National School today, they will have to be moved to a garden shed in the school yard.

It was the only area left available on the school campus, according to school staff and parents.

Clonbonny NS Principal Joan Donnelly said 37 children are sharing a classroom, even though there is not a distance of one metre between the desks.

She said it was the best the school could do, as the department had not responded to its appeal for more space to be provided.

Ms Donnelly said she was not happy with the shed facility, but the school had no space.

She said it would be in even greater difficulty in a few weeks' time as the school grass pitch would likely be flooded during the winter.

Ms Donnelly said that the children would not have a place to play, leaving them in crowded conditions at the school.

"It is not just good enough," said local councillor Frankie Keena.

"The school board have sought help and a portacabin from the department. They have already turned the school canteen into a room and they have no space left."

A statement from the Department of Education said 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 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."

The department said that the minor works grant - a fund of €30 million in total - for primary schools, which is usually paid in December or January, was brought forward to August.

An enhanced minor work grant has also been issued directly to schools, it said.

"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.

"These measures include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, re-purposing 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 reopening," the statement added.

Ms Donnelly said earlier that the school was bitterly disappointed that the department had not agreed to a request for an additional Special Needs Assistant, in light of the presence of children with special needs in four different classrooms.

She said the school had applied because the existing SNAs would have to move within the pods already set up in the classrooms to meet the children involved and this was another Covid-19 concern.

In a response, the Department of Education said: "Clonbonny National School submitted a request for an exceptional review of their SNA allocation for 2020/21 school year as they were of the view that their allocation was insufficient to meet the needs of their students for the year.

"The school was given an increase in SNA resources of 0.34 posts under this review process. However, the school appealed the outcome of this review.

"The appeal was not upheld and the school was advised of this in writing on Friday 21st August 2020.

"The NCSE allocates SNA resources in line with Department of Education and Skills policy. There is no provision for schools to apply for additional temporary SNA resources from September in order to support social distancing in schools."