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Social distancing rules mean it's inevitable students won't be back in school full-time - ASTI

Teachers’ unions will appear before the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee today.

Image: Shutterstock/maroke

Updated Jul 2nd 2020, 8:27 AM

STUDENTS WILL NOT be able to return to school as normal come September if current health guidance remains in force, a teachers’ union has warned. 

Concerns are growing among trade unions about what exactly schools will look like – and how safe they’ll be – when they return at the end of summer. 

Deirdre McDonald, the President of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland programme that teachers had not been involved in drafting the guidance, which was published by the Department of Education. 

Under the guidance, compiled by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, primary school pupils from third class up and all secondary school students will be required to maintain a distance of at least one metre between each other when schools return

Teachers will also be required to maintain at least one metre of distance between themselves and students, although the guidance recognises that there will be exceptions, such as administering first aid. 

Individual desks will need to be at least one metre apart and teachers should arrange to move from classroom to classroom to avoid students moving in groups. 

Speaking on the same programme this morning, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that the challenges facing secondary schools are “more complex”. 

Primary schools, he said, will return for a full week of classes, but things could look different at secondary level where students would normally move around the school.

“There’s a lot of work to be done now looking at the practicalities of that and how it can be brought to bear. The preference, obviously, is that all students go back to school. We need to look at how close to that we can get.”

Later today, General Secretary of the ASTI, Kieran Christie, will tell the Dáil Special Covid-19 Committee that there was “consternation” among its members when a department report said a “differentiated approach to physical distancing in schools” could be considered. 

“An inferior approach to physical distancing in schools from that which pertains to wider society or any deviation from the health advice available from the NPHET or the HPSC would be unacceptable,” Christie states in his opening statement.

“In fact, any deviation from the health advice available from the National Public Health
Emergency Team or the Health Protection Surveillance Centre of the HSE would be
unacceptable,” he states.

“From our perspective, there simply cannot be rules on physical distancing that apply outside a school in wider society or business that don’t apply inside a school,” he states. 

The INTO General Secretary John Boyle will also tell the committee today that it is “something of a national embarrassment, we have the largest class sizes in the Eurozone”.

“Many of our primary school classrooms have more than thirty pupils, with our European neighbours enjoying an average of just twenty in a class. This really matters when we look at applying social distancing,” says Boyle. 

In his opening statement to the committee he calls for a national media campaign so as to ensure ‘buy-in’ from the entire school community in relation to new routines.

This morning, McDonald said that, given current advice, “there will have to be some blended approach to learning”.

“Full occupancy of the school at all times will not be possible,” she said. 

This would mean that teaching would be split between in-school lessons and some online learning from home. 

Asked about whether children and teenagers would maintain a safe social distance if they returned to school, McDonald acknowledged it would be a challenge. 

“It is going to be very difficult. All anyone needs to do is walk down any street of any town,” she said. 

ASTI said that detailed information on how the guidance could be implemented is now needed. 

“The guidelines are only the guidelines. Now we have to see detailed planning about how this will operate,” said McDonald

“We have lost time, I have to say. We as teachers union have asked that detailed planning would have taken place or started to take place five weeks ago, so we have lost time.”

“But, all said and done, we have a new minister, and we will hope that the guidelines will be put in place, detailed planning, about how this will operate.”

Education Minister Norma Foley has said the interim guidance will support schools in planning for the upcoming term:

We all want to support the education system so that we can welcome our pupils and staff across our school communities back into a safe environment later in the year.  We will continue to work with the public health experts over the course of the summer to update the interim advice as necessary.

Teachers Union of Ireland

The Teachers Union of Ireland’s (TUI) statement to the committee says: 

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“We are not convinced or satisfied that schools can reopen safely, given current circumstances, in the absence of some defined metric regarding social distancing.”

It’s statement goes on to say that second level schools and Youthreach centres were not built to accommodate the exigencies of a pandemic.

“Other workers are protected by social distancing, developed and comprehensive return to workplace plans carefully implemented, personal protective equipment where necessary. Teachers ask no more than to be treated with the same level of concern,” the opening statement concludes.

The TUI, which has 19,500 members, states that its members have a duty of care to their students.

“As a teachers’ trade union, we also owe a duty of care to our members. In both cases that duty consists first and foremost of seeking to safeguard their health.”

The statement concludes by stating that “post primary students have no magical immunity. Teachers as workers have no magical immunity. They must be treated as are other workers”.

With reporting from Christina Finn and Conor McCrave

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