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Teaching union said it never proposed breaking early for Christmas

Teaching unions spoke before an Oireachtas Committee today.

Image: Shutterstock

Updated Nov 19th 2020, 4:35 PM

THE TEACHERS’ UNION of Ireland (TUI) has said that it never proposed the idea of schools closing early for the Christmas break. 

Speaking before the Oireachtas Education Committee today, the union’s general secretary Michael Gillespie said that the idea was first mooted by politicians and that there was a petition about it but that the union was not advocating for it. 

The idea was raised in recent days to close schools for the Christmas break on Friday 18 December rather than on Tuesday 22 December, with the TUI saying that it would be a “once-off measure”. 

Speaking today, Gillespie distanced the union from the proposal. 

“We were responding to queries that came in, I think it was raised initially by a political party here, and then there was a massive petition about it,” he said. 

The TUI’s response was that it merited consideration. We never demanded it or proposed it, what seems to be what people had been quoting. So we answered press queries and we said it merited consideration.

“And the reason we said in merited consideration is that that Monday and Tuesday are not high educational days,” Gillespie added.

They would be days that traditionally would have had a lot of things going on on the hidden curriculum, things like shows, perhaps religious ceremonies, depending on the school. 

The union official said that some of the union’s own members were “upset” by the proposal but that others said it bore consideration. The TUI, he said, “went no further than that”. 

Cold weather

The committee also said that some schools could be forced to close over the winter months if the weather gets too cold due to ventilation and heating issues.

Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), said teachers and students have been wearing their coats in class to stay warm since the colder weather began.

He said that hygiene and ventilation facilities need to be upgraded, and the union “remained concerned” over the differential capacity of schools to implement key aspects of the Covid-19 response plan.

“As the colder weather has set in, keeping many classrooms warm, ensuring they will be appropriately ventilated, has been a big problem in schools,” he said.

Teachers and students are there in their coats in many instances. If a period of cold weather comes in the coming weeks or months, many schools are likely to have to close for the duration.

He also said there is a lack of communication protocols in place in schools where an outbreak of Covid-19 occurs, which needs to be addressed, and he added prioritising schools for rapid testing and tracing is also needed.

Christie was one of four representatives from teachers and other school workers’ trade unions who appeared before the Education Committee on Thursday to discuss the issues affecting schools during the pandemic.

Gillespie also said many second-level school buildings are “not fit for purpose”.

He called for a full audit of each school to establish and quantify the resources needed to keep them open.

“TUI is calling for the Department of Education to take the advice of the HPSC (Health Protection Surveillance Centre) and install air quality meters in every classroom – this will ensure that student and teachers are not forced to teach and learn in freezing cold classrooms,” he said.

In the medium-term, and to future-proof our education system, we must re-conceptualise school design. The current crisis has demonstrated the importance of infrastructure that is fit for purpose.

The committee was also told that teachers should be given priority for the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

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Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said the government should have been provided a free flu vaccine to all teachers, and the union “insist” that when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, all those who work in schools are “prioritised”.

He also said the government must send a strong message to families who travel abroad over Christmas that children will have to restrict their movements when they return in January in line with public health advice prior to going back to school.

High-risk

TDs and senators also heard calls from the unions for the government to undertake a further review of the requirement for high-risk teachers to attend schools during the pandemic.

Christie said he was “dismayed” that pregnant teachers and other vulnerable staff and students are being required to attend class.

“In every school there are teachers and students who are vulnerable in terms of their health status or particular personal circumstances, including pregnancy,” he said.

The ASTI is dismayed that many of these members have been required to attend schools and no remote or reasonable accommodations have been implemented to allow them to participate in their work or studies in a more appropriate setting.

“Teachers are essential workers in the education system. It is essential that schools are safe spaces for teachers and students: health, safety and welfare must be the priority of school management and the Department of Education and Skills.”

- With reporting by PA

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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