The country’s two largest teacher unions have expressed optimism that the Government’s plans to allow schools reopen at the end of August, which are due to be announced later today, will enable all teachers and students to operate in a safe environment.
Leaders of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland have welcomed the outline of the plan due to be signed off at this afternoon’s meeting of the Cabinet but expressed concern that the funding would be adequate.
INTO general secretary, John Boyle, said the Government’s plan was very detailed but he was uncertain about the breakdown of funding which would be available to schools.
The package is understood to include hundreds of additional teachers and alterations to classrooms, along with administrative supports for principals.
Mr Boyle said boards of management and principals would be under huge pressure to deliver on the plan through carrying out risk assessments, ordering PPE supplies to allow 600,000 staff and pupils return to school at the end of August after missing 60 school days in the recent school year.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Boyle acknowledged it was “a big ask” but felt it could be done because of the detailed plan that has been formulated.
However, he said he was worried that funding for the resource package could run out in a number of weeks with the risk of classes having to be split if substitute teachers were not available.
Mr O’Boyle added: “It is ironic that it has taken a pandemic for us to realise that education cannot work on a shoestring.” The INTO has sought assurance that supply panels of teachers modelled on a successful pilot scheme which was trialled last year will be established around the country to allow substitute teachers to be deployed at short notice.
Mr Boyle also called for measures to ensure the country’s 1,700 teaching principals would be allowed to oversee the health and safety measures needed in their schools once they reopened.
“It is absolutely imperative that they be given the space to leave their classrooms,” said Mr O’Boyle.
ASTI president, Deirdre McDonald, said the plan must be in line with the public health advice on safe working conditions.
“We do hope that what is necessary will be put in place. If it’s not, we won’t be back,” she added.
Ms McDonald said she was very hopeful that all schools could reopen as planned as the teachers’ unions had made it extremely clear to the Department of Education what was needed.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Ms McDonald said it was crucial that the plan would be sustainable and take account of the increased need for substitute teachers.
The ASTI president said the amount of money available for additional staff, cleaning of schools and adaption of school buildings would be key.
“We don’t know how much will be needed but we know it needs to be adequate and we know it needs to be sustainable,” said Ms McDonald.
She added: “If not, schools can’t remain open.” Ms McDonald said the situation had been made more difficult than it needed to be by the Government introducing lower pay rates for new teachers and falling numbers entering the profession.
“The under-spend on education is coming home to roost now,” said Ms McDonald.
Both teacher union leaders noted the irony of the recent controversial decision by the Government to bring in legislation to ensure three super junior ministers each got a €16,288 supplement when they had been engaged in a campaign for several years to have equal pay for teachers.
The general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, John MacGabhann, said the choice of any teacher to wear PPE should be respected while it was preferable if they did not have to use such equipment.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney, Mr MacGabhann said social distancing of two meters could not be operated in schools and that a separation distance of one metre was “difficult but it’s workable”.
The TUI leader said it was understandable that some secondary students may opt to wear face masks but the union’s focus would be on ensuring that physical distancing was maintained.
On the same programme, Colm O’Rourke, the principal of St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan, Co Meath, predicted schools would have difficulty in finding an adequate number of teachers as there was a shortage of available staff, particularly for the teaching of languages.
He claimed the issue of social distancing in schools was “a non-runner”.
Meanwhile, the head of Tullow Community School in Tullow, Co Carlow said the Government’s plan to have a social distancing rule of one metre in schools once they reopen is going to have huge implications for schools.
Speaking on KCFM, the school’s principal, Paul Thornton estimated the cost of replacing the school’s double-desks with over 650 single desks to ensure social distancing would be over €30,000.
“If they’re talking about classroom infrastructure changes, then you’re talking about planning permission, you’re talking about architecture and then trying to find builders in three weeks to knock out the walls and extend the classroom. All those kinds of things are not simple and are not going to happen easily and it’s going to cost a lot of money.”