Local INTO representative Adrian Kelly has warned that difficult steps will have to be taken in the weeks and months ahead after the government confirmed on Tuesday evening that schools would reopen as planned today.
Public health officials gave the green light for schools to return after a lengthy meeting with Education minister Norma Foley and various education stakeholders on Tuesday. A statement from the Department of Education said that public health advice remains that COVID-19 mitigation measures in place in schools ‘are effective and appropriate’.
However, many teacher unions including INTO remain unhappy and are unconvinced that the school environment is safe for teachers. According to Adrian Kelly Louth rep for INTO the re-opening of schools will be ‘extremely challenging’.
“The reopening of our schools is extremely challenging. Most schools will simply not be able to operate as normal owing to the absences of children and staff who are required to isolate. There will be times when, despite the incredible efforts of principals and teachers, difficult steps will have to be taken,” he warned.
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“Crucially we need to acknowledge that primary education staff are going back to care for the largest cohort of unvaccinated people in the country, in the largest class sizes in the EU. Many are anxious, especially those with underlying health issues, high risk family members and pregnant women. The Department of Education assured the INTO yesterday that public health, the occupational health service and the department would keep all measures related to vulnerable educational staff under review.
“The primary education sector was let down by this government in the last term. Ripping out contact tracing, tearing up risk assessments and ditching batch-testing left our schools exposed when a new variant emerged. History will record this decision as a spectacular failure of leadership which led to a loss of faith by teachers and school leaders that they would be properly supported and protected,” stated Adrian.
“The primary sector remains in the midst of a staffing crisis, with schools up and down the country struggling to source substitute cover when they need it. While the Department of Education initially failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem, recent steps to enable student teachers to undertake paid substitution work in schools on a short-term basis has enabled more schools to remain open when it might otherwise not have been possible. At yesterday’s meeting, the union was informed that more student teachers will be made available to undertake this work during the next two months at least.
“At yesterday’s meeting, the INTO was advised that school inspectors will be seconded to help schools who cannot access substitution cover to make decisions regarding how best to give priority to children with additional needs and younger classes while other classes may have to return to remote learning from time to time.”
“We set out our concerns that primary schools had been abandoned by public health in recent months, at a time of great unease and anxiety when case numbers among 5-12-year olds multiplied by 50 to 1100 per day by mid-December. While the union received commitments today that designated public health staff nationwide would reengage with the sector, time will tell if the level of support being provided is sufficient. Principals need an ally on the other end of the phone, someone who will treat them with respect, act quickly and provide them with the advice they need to lead their schools at a time of crisis. Nothing less can be tolerated.”
Adrian also urged the government to reintroduce contract tracing as soon as possible.
“The reckless dismantling of the contact tracing and risk assessment regime in our schools in late September has left the country somewhat blind as to the reality of transmission in our schools.
Government must be prepared to accept when they have made mistakes and restore contact tracing and school testing data to ensure we can actually see what’s happening in our schools. In some schools one case only becomes two cases, in other schools one case becomes 50. A lack of awareness as to what’s happening in specific schools hinders our ability to make informed decisions and protect our school communities.
We fundamentally reject the findings of the public health review which has concluded that contact tracing should not be reinstated in primary educational settings at this time. As a union we continue to demand that it be rolled out in schools,” concluded Adrian.