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'Enormous unease' about schools reopening amid concerns about teacher substitutes, unions say

Education Minister Norma Foley said that the next few weeks would be challenging.

LAST UPDATE | 5 Jan 2022

THE ASTI HAS said that there is “enormous unease” among their members ahead of the schools reopening, as the INTO said there “isn’t a hope” of getting enough substitute teachers to cover absences in schools over the coming weeks.

“There will be situations where there will be classes at home, there will be situations where schools will have to do a bit of juggling,” John Boyle of the INTO said today.

In response, Education Minister Norma Foley said there will be challenges in the weeks ahead, but added that an additional 2,500 student teachers and retired teachers are being made available to fill those gaps.

When asked whether the Department of Education or the principal makes the final decision on whether a class goes home or a school closes, Foley said that “schools know their own situation on the ground, but schools can draw the resource of the department and the inspectors in particular, so that they can work through the best solution”.

Minister Foley told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the Department of Education will work “hand-in-hand” with schools, and that a helpline is going live this morning and will be in place over seven days to answer principals’ and teachers’ queries. 

The Government has insisted since last December that schools would open as planned on 6 January; following a meeting between the Minister for Education, Department officials, unions and school representatives yesterday, it was decided that schools would open tomorrow as planned.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said that children and young people “are best served by in-person teaching and learning, and this remains a priority”. Public health officials said there was “no public health rationale” to delaying the reopening of schools.

A staggered and delayed return to schools had been requested by the main secondary-level teachers union the ASTI and the secondary school students union the ISSU.

‘Absences of up to 50%’

The General Secretary of the ASTI Kieran Christie told Newstalk Breakfast today that there was “enormous unease” among their members regarding the safety of members and students amid the Omicron wave.

“It wasn’t the dominant strain before Christmas and there is understandable concern around that,” he said, adding that they accepted the public health advice.

“But that doesn’t mean that our members don’t have great unease,” he said- with as many as 10-50% of ASTI-member teachers absent due to Covid in some schools.

Christie said that among the ASTI’s requests that had not been met during talks yesterday was making medical grade masks a requirement in school settings instead of fabric masks that children wear.

When the Education Minister was asked was she in favour of a derogation for teachers in relation to close contact rules, she said she would not be seeking that.

On HEPA filters, a bone of contention between school communities and the Government, Christie was told that only 17 schools had applied for the Government fund for filtration systems, made available after considerable pressure from the public and schools.

“I’d be astonished that any school would leave money in Marlborough Street… There’s been no audit on the HEPA filters in schools,” he said, suggesting that schools may have bought their own filters before the fund was brought in, or didn’t have time yet to apply for the funding.

Some additional measures

Ireland’s main primary-level teachers’ union the INTO has said that some assurances have been given to them during talks with the Department yesterday; including more student teachers being made available to teach; and school inspectors being made available to assess where teaching priority should be given.

The INTO also said that the Government had yesterday “finally agreed” to provide primary school teachers with medical-grade facemasks; Norma Foley suggested on RTÉ radio today that the unions had simply asked public health to take “one more look at the issue of face masks” and public health officials had said they will do that – and that public health officials had concluded “they’re satisfied currently with the measures”.

However, the union “fundamentally rejects” the findings of the public health review which concluded that contact tracing should not be reinstated in primary schools. “We will continue to demand that this essential support be reinstated,” it said.

Contact tracing is currently in place in special schools and secondary schools, but not in primary schools.

John Boyle of the INTO told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that there is a huge amount of evidence had been presented to them that children are not driving the huge numbers of infections in society – instead it’s the 16-19 age group and people up to 44 years of age that is having a knock-on effect on children.

But he said that there wasn’t a hope of getting enough replacement teachers to cover the extent of the shortages of teachers in schools.

“There isn’t a hope that we’re going to have enough replacement teachers and that’s me being honest and frank. Where would we get them? Even if they were to free up the first years and the second years in the colleges of education, of course they are not ready to be taking charge of a class.”

The Irish Second-level Students’ Union (ISSU) has also criticised the decision to announce a full reopening of schools “with a two-day notice”, and said that the shortage of school staff and student absences had not been properly addressed.

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