Public health advice must guide return to school, unions warn

Public health advice must guide return to school, unions warn

Ashton O'Keeffe and Caoimhe Walsh, Leaving Cert students at Bishopstown Community School, Cork, who are among the 320,000 children and young people returning to classrooms on Monday. Picture: Dan Linehan

Decisions on the return of further classes to in-person learning must be led by up-to-date public health advice rather than arbitrary dates, the primary school teachers’ union has warned.

More than 320,000 students — from junior infants to second class at primary level, and Leaving Certificate students — will return to classrooms on Monday as the next phase of reopening schools gets under way. Full attendance will also resume in special schools which have been operating at 50% capacity since the beginning of February.

Dates for school reopening

The Government is aiming to have all students back learning in classrooms by mid-April, subject to public health advice, under targets agreed on and approved by the Cabinet yesterday.

It has set March 15 as the date that primary school pupils from third class to sixth class, and fifth-year students in secondary schools, will return to classrooms. All other class groups are expected to return on April 12. 

Responses of teachers' unions

The provision of air ventilation monitors, face masks for pupils in senior classes, and regular antigen testing, sought by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) have not been taken on board by the Government. The union said it will continue to push for the adoption of these measures.  The INTO said it has made it clear that it expects decisions on the return of further classes to be led by up-to-date public health advice. 

The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) said its members are prepared to facilitate a phased and cautious return of students to schools, subject to ongoing reviews by the public health authorities. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it is committed to the safe reopening of second-level schools. 

Fórsa said continued progress on the reduction of Covid-19 transmission and the prioritisation of vaccinations for special education staff is needed to help keep schools open.

Education minister Norma Foley acknowledged the challenges posed by the phased reopening of education. 	File Picture: Sasko Lazarov / RollingNews.ie
Education minister Norma Foley acknowledged the challenges posed by the phased reopening of education. File Picture: Sasko Lazarov / RollingNews.ie

Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, said she acknowledges that a phased re-opening is challenging for many people, particularly those with children returning at different times. 

I ask all parents to please review the symptoms of Covid-19, to ensure that children with symptoms do not attend school, and that all children know and understand the procedures in place in school.

Four advocacy organisations representing children with special educational needs have criticised the Government for making significant changes to plans to re-open schools on a phased basis with no prior consultation with disability representative organisations. 

AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland, and Inclusion Ireland said that the changes announced negatively affect almost 20,000 children with additional educational needs in mainstream classes who fall behind in the order of returning to school. 

"We are incredibly disappointed for thousands of children and families we represent who, having been told repeatedly by Government that their return to school was the absolute priority, now find themselves completely de-prioritised," a spokesperson for the group said. 

"These children need to the priority — but now they are being told that they won’t be back until everyone is back." 

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