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ASTI members insist strike action would be 'last resort' but that government needs to listen to them

ASTI members have voted to take industrial action over ‘key coronavirus issues’ in Irish schools.

File image: PA
File image: PA
Image: DPA/PA Images

MEMBERS OF THE Association of Secondary Teachers (ASTI) in Ireland say strike action would be a “last resort” but their concerns over classroom safety need to be addressed.

ASTI members voted on Wednesday to take industrial action unless the government addresses several issues related to Covid-19 in schools by today. 

The issues in question include the need for a comprehensive testing programme, rapid testing and turnaround times, along with resources for schools to ensure continuation of learning if schools are closed or people are self-isolating.

Seamus Keane, an ASTI member and teacher in Co Dublin told The Journal.ie he is opposed to strike action and it would be “a last resort”.

“The idea that we will suddenly go on strike is very, very far down the road. People jump to conclusions when they hear the words ‘up to and including strike action’ but it has to be included on the ballot,” said Keane.

Keane said teachers want to ensure their classrooms are safe and keeping schools open is their priority.

“Teachers do not want to go on strike and no one is demanding we go on strike. I want to make that clear,” he said.

“There is so much political capital riding on schools being open however teachers’ concerns cannot be ignored. We are heading into winter and we need to address the issue of ventilation in classrooms and proper PPE for students and teachers.”

Keane said teachers are at risk of burnout due to the extra demands being placed upon them.

“Teaching and learning is becoming secondary to policing the Covid rules. Most students are brilliant but you will always have the small minority who will close the windows, take off their face masks or not co-operate.”

Hardliners

Another teacher, who gave his name as Michael, said he has been an ASTI member for 20 years and is “totally opposed” to strike action.

“The idea that teachers would consider strike action right now is absolutely crazy. What we need right now is to show solidarity with other frontline staff.”

If we receive scientific evidence that proves that it is unsafe to teach in schools then I would consider it but otherwise not. Parents and kids have suffered enough.

Conor Murphy, an ASTI member and teacher in Co Cork, said he felt the result of the ballot was “inevitable”.

“There is a level of worry among teachers regarding their, and their students, safety. The narrative around what is happening in schools coming from the government and the reality on the ground diverges so much that teachers are worried.

“Some schools have much smaller physical space than is recognised, there is talk about classroom ventilation and spacing but the time between classes, before class, after class, and break times are being ignored. The ballot is a result of that worry.”

“But the truth is that teachers are happy to be back. The conversation in school is about health and safety but also about the sheer relief of being in front of students and teaching. Teaching remotely wasn’t ideal in any way, we missed the interaction with students and the day-to-day business of teaching. Online teaching for those months didn’t give us that,” he said.

With this in mind I would say the likelihood of strike is there but only as a last resort. Teachers want to teach, they just want to do so in the safest way possible and with the option of teaching online being a more equitable one – some students had no technology, others were using their phones, as were some teachers.

Murphy said returning to school on Monday after the mid-term break is an “imposing task” for many teachers.

“All we are hearing is that the country needs to take level 5 seriously, that people shouldn’t gather in large groups, that people shouldn’t meet for long periods of time, that people should work from home if possible, yet we, and our students, are going into an environment that is the direct opposite of that.

“Teachers are worried but, as ever, willing to do the best for their students.”

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Solidarity

Separately, a special education teacher and member of primary schools’ union the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) expressed solidarity with ASTI members considering strike action.

Sinéad Kavanagh said she can empathise with teachers at second level considering strike action due to their concerns over safety in the classroom.

“Teachers do not want to strike or want schools to close, but they do not feel like their concerns are being listened to.”

Kavanagh said she is nervous about returning to school following the mid-term as she is an asthmatic and has previously had cancer.

“There is no such thing as social distancing as I’m a special education teacher and have to sit near the kids and they don’t wear masks. 

We are worried we will bring Covid home to our families but schools have worked so hard to make it work so we really hope schools can remain open but some teachers feel like sitting ducks.

ASTI 

A spokeswoman for ASTI told TheJournal.ie yesterday evening:

“We are not at the stage of taking any industrial action yet and certainly not strike action. If we receive satisfactory responses from the Department of Education all action can be averted. The health and safety of our members, their colleagues and their students must remain of paramount importance. Protecting that health cannot be seen as disproportionate.”

The spokeswoman said “immediate and meaningful” moves by the Department to address ASTI concerns would avert the need for industrial action.

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