Schools can't reopen 'unless safety measures improve'

Reopening after mid-term will only happen only if contact tracing is elevated, unions warn
Schools can't reopen 'unless safety measures improve'

Unions have raised concerns around the current contact tracing process, and the criteria used for testing and close contacts in schools. File picture

The reopening of schools after the mid-term break will depend on safety measures and contact tracing improving, education unions have warned.

This Tuesday, teaching unions and Fórsa, which represents 15,000 non-teaching staff members including special needs assistants (SNAs), have been meeting with representatives of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to discuss their concerns.

As the country moves to level five restrictions, the Government intends on keeping school buildings open, and ensuring that children continue to attend school safely is a key objective for it.

However, unions have raised concerns around the current contact tracing process, and the criteria used for testing and close contacts in schools.

The current arrangements for schools have not been sufficient to keep pace with the rise in cases, according to Fórsa.

This means that some schools have been “left to fend for themselves” without HSE intervention, resulting in decisions to send home year groups or close schools completely.

The current provisions in place under Level 5 restrictions are “insufficient”, according to Andy Pike, the head of education at Fórsa.

“If schools are to stay open under Level 5, the Government must maintain confidence, and keep its side of the bargain by doing everything possible to keep staff safe.” 

“As it stands, the Government’s approach is to do the bare minimum and downplay the extent of the risks to staff and students,” he said.

“We have close to 300 cases confirmed in our school system,” Mr Pike added.

“It’s clear, however, that many schools are not being informed of cases, which means the true number of Covid cases in schools is unknown, and likely to be significantly higher than the 246 additional cases reported by the department yesterday.” 

“We know that it has taken enormous efforts to keep our schools open at this time, and Fórsa commends the staff, pupils, and parents of every school community for keeping the doors open and maintaining continuity for pupils at an especially difficult time.

But more measures need to be in place if this is to be made sustainable, he said, adding this included a single viable test-and-trace system for schools, as well as clear protocols defining close contacts and testing criteria.

The Department of Education officials assured us that they will continue to engage with the INTO regularly during schools’ mid-term break. 

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (

INTO

) also met with representatives of Nphet on Tuesday.

The union representing primary school teachers has called for the urgent publication of confirmed Covid-19 cases in schools, as well as a clear explanation of the difference between a close and casual contact in the school setting.

The union has also sought an urgent review of the policy of wearing face coverings by pupils and school staff, more protective measures for primary and special schools in light of level 5 restrictions, and an evidence-based public health decision on schools.

John Boyle, INTO general secretary, said: “The Department of Education officials assured us that they will continue to engage with the INTO regularly during schools’ mid-term break.” 

“The successful reopening of schools on November 2 will depend on the preventative and protective measures that are put in place by the government in the interim.” Post-primary teaching unions, the Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), are meeting with public health this afternoon.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Education said Norma Foley, the minister for education, has confirmed that dedicated school teams are to be set up in each HSE area to assist schools where a positive case of Covid-19 is identified.

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