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Schools set to re-open on Thursday as safety measures deemed 'effective and appropriate'

Each of the three main teaching unions continued to express concerns about staffing.
Jan 4th 2022, 7:43 AM 198,806 195

Updated Jan 4th 2022, 9:55 PM

SCHOOLS ARE SET to reopen fully on Thursday despite concerns about staffing and Covid-19. 

In a statement this evening, the Department of Education said that public health advice remains that  Covid-19 mitigation measures in place in schools “are effective and appropriate”. 

The statement was delivered following a meeting today between Minister Norma Foley, teaching unions and other stakeholders ahead of the reopening of schools after the Christmas break. 

“These meetings were productive, with all parties recognising the importance to students of in-school teaching and learning and the need for all in the school community to have regard to the measures in place to support school communities to operate in line with Public Health advice,” the statement said. 

Education stakeholders were briefed by the Minister and Public Health representatives on how the Covid-19 mitigation measures in place in schools have been reviewed by Public Health and will continue in place in the coming term. Public health remains of the view that these mitigation measures are effective and appropriate. Furthermore, public health officials advised that there is no public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools later this week. 

In a tweet this evening, Foley said that young people are best served by in-person teaching and that it remains a priority for the government.

Foley said that she understood the demands and challenges that this would put on schools around the country and that she appreciated their dedication and goodwill.

“While I am conscious of the demands and challenges that this will bring for school communities, I am most appreciative of their generous goodwill and determination to put the needs of students first, as always,” said Foley.

The leaders of the three government coalition parties also met this afternoon to discuss the ongoing Covid-19 situation. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party discussed the plans for school reopening and considered advice from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan and public health officials. 

No potential new restrictions were discussed or advised, giving the green light for schools to reopen as planned. 

In a statement this evening, Dr. Holohan said that there was a “significant reduction” in the incidence of Covid-19 among school-age children in December but that it was “inevitable that children will pick up this infection from household contacts in the days and weeks ahead”. 

“We also know, as a result, that there will be cases and outbreaks in schools and childcare settings. The Irish and international experience of the pandemic continues to give us reason to believe that schools are a lower risk environment for the transmission of Covid-19,” he said. 

Ahead of a full Cabinet meeting tomorrow, it is expected that the government will also ask Holohan to approve a relaxation of  isolation rules for fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Cabinet Tuesday 006 Education Minister Norma Foley. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Minister Foley had said that today’s meeting with stakeholders would focus on infection prevention and control measures in place in schools.

Teaching union the ASTI had pushed for “a delayed and staggered reopening” of schools, warning that reopening without introducing additional safety measures would be an “unacceptable risk”.

Following today’s meeting, each of the three main teaching unions continued to express concerns about staffing. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Drivetime today following the meeting, ASTI President Eamon Dennehy said that while schools are set to reopen it was acklowdged that some classes may have to be prioritised if there are too many teachers unavailable due to Covid-19. 

“There is an acknowledgment that if the staffing numbers aren’t sufficient then priority will have to be given to those who are in exam classes,” he said.

Dennehy said he was unclear who would make that determination but it would probably be made by schools and their boards of management.

He added that the meeting could be considered “successful” because there were commitments around supports to ensure air quality and improving the quality of face masks.

In a statement the TUI said that, while schools would reopen on Thursday, today’s meeting “did not engage on the operational details” on how this would be achieved and that a further meeting was required tomorrow. 

“In this regard, the union had earlier insisted that schools must have flexibility on how they re-open based on their particular circumstances,” the TUI said. 

The INTO said this evening that its representatives told the meeting that primary schools “had been abandoned by public health in recent months” and that the sector was “in the midst of a staffing crisis”. 

The union said that the it was today told that more student teachers are to be made available to undertake work. 

“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 today’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,” the INTO said in a statement.  

The union also said the government had agreed to supply schools with medical grade face masks for teachers. It also “fundamentally rejected” findings from the public health review that contact tracing should not be reinstated in primary schools. 

Unease

The ASTI, which represents around 18,500 secondary teachers, met yesterday to assess the return of schools as Covid-19 cases hit record highs, fuelled by the Omicron variant.

The meeting heard that there is unease among members around the safety of staff and pupils.

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Health officials today confirmed an additional 16,986 new cases of Covid-19 in the wake of warnings from NPHET that the PCR testing system has been overwhelmed by the volume of the disease in the country, and that the true volume of cases is up to 40% higher.

The union has cited concerns around safety of school communities, staff shortages due to Covid, inadequate ventilation, and a lack of Hepa air filtration devices, and risks to immuno-compromised individuals.

When asked about the staggered reopening, ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie earlier told Morning Ireland that the union will be arguing that Leaving and Junior certificate classes “get the best of what’s available in terms of face to face teaching”.

“We have no problem with our teachers being present in schools in a safe and coherent fashion from Thursday, with proper mitigations in place in a context where the level of staffing is sufficient to manage the number of students in place.

“Our suggestion is that Leaving and Junior Certificate students would be the first ones to be brought back so that we can establish, in a coherent fashion, what can be achieved in terms of face to face teaching,” said Christie.

TUI General Secretary Michael Gillespie said that many of their members who had Covid-19 symptoms and tested positive on antigen tests, but who can’t get a PCR test are unclear on whether they isolate for 10 days from their positive antigen test result.

In its statement this evening, the Department of Education said that it will issue guidance for parents and students to ensure that symptomatic students and household close contacts do not attend school. 

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Hayley Halpin and Adam Daly

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