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No social distancing and underlying health risks: Covid committee to hear from teachers and parents today

A number of representative groups will voice their concerns in the Dáil today.

Schools have been rallying in recent weeks to introduce measures that will support reopening.
Schools have been rallying in recent weeks to introduce measures that will support reopening.
Image: Leah Farrell

A MEETING OF the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 will this morning hear how some schools were not able to implement social distancing measures prior to reopening to students this week.

Representatives from a number of stakeholders in the education sector, including the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the National Parents Council Post-Primary (NPCPP) will address members of the committee this morning. 

In an opening statement from the general secretary of the TUI Michael Gillespie, TDs will be told of “reports in recent days of schools that have not yet put the necessary measures in place” to support the minimum one-metre social distancing measure recommended in schools by public health officials.

“TUI members will not accept any departure from the public health guidance, including the absolute necessity to maintain a physical distance of no less than one metre, preferably two metres, in our schools,” Gillespie will say. 

The TUI is not alone in raising concerns around the ability to social distance within school communities. 

“With the number of students attending Irish schools increasing this year, principals also expressed concerns about the feasibility of social distancing for students throughout school buildings,” ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie will say.

“More than 70% of principals surveyed rated the feasibility of social distancing in school corridors and other communal areas as weak.

“The ASTI has also demanded that an urgent review be undertaken of the physical distancing requirements for schools, given the NPHET advice that only six people should congregate in any indoor setting and also in the context of the lack of clarity in the guidance that underpins the operation of schools.”

The ASTI sought a meeting with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre on 21 August to discuss the concerns around advice for schools but its request was denied. 

The union also wrote to Education Minister Norma Foley on 24 August to request a meeting but has not to date received a response. 

High risk

Teachers and students who are deemed to be high risk for Covid-19 will also be top of the agenda at today’s committee meetings. 

“We also want to seek clarity on the safety issues involved for teachers and students in the high risk health category,” Christie will say.

“The ASTI is receiving a significant number of calls from teachers whose illnesses include chronic kidney disease, cancer and serious heart disease. Anxiety levels for this group are very high. It is unconscionable that teachers who suffer the likes of these illnesses are being required to return to classrooms teaching sizeable groups.

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The TUI will highlight how “some schools have a significant number of students who are categorised as being at very high risk”.

“Additional resources will be needed to ensure those students have access to the technology to continue their education at home,” Gillespie will state in his opening statement.

“A major obstacle in this regard is the digital divide where some students simply do not have access to broadband or the required technology to engage effectively. Failure to address this will exacerbate inequality.”

In its opening statement, the National Parents Council Post-Primary will call for “assistance towards securing any additional space or infrastructure to ensure the safety of those in the school community must be forthcoming and promptly delivered.”

TheJournal.ie last week highlighted how one school in Louth is facilitating class sizes of 33 pupils while another large classroom lies empty. The INTO indicated that a number of schools are in a similar position across the country. 

The NPCPP will call for “prompt testing and availability of results, where necessary, must be a priority.”

The committee is due to convene at 10am this morning with union officials attending the morning session and parent representative groups attending the afternoon session. 

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