Teachers unions raise concerns about school reopening plans

Teachers unions raise concerns about school reopening plans

Fears had grown in recent days about the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and its potential to cause mass staff and student absences in schools. Picture: iStock

Schools will open as planned on Thursday, following meetings between Education Minister Norma Foley and education representatives on Tuesday.

The Department of Education has confirmed schools will reopen, indicating the public health advice it received cleared the way for such a move. 

Fears had grown in recent days about the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and its potential to cause mass staff and student absences in schools.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland said individual schools should be allowed to choose how they re-open based on their particular circumstances of staff availability.

“In situations where priority needs to be provided, it should be given to students in special needs classes, students with special and additional needs and students in examination years,” it said.

The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland expressed deep concern about re-opening schools without additional safety measures, and suggested a delayed and staggered reopening of schools, as well as making antigen tests available for all parents and their children to be used prior to going to school.

“The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place to protect all concerned,” said ASTI president Eamon Dennehy.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) expressed concerns that primary schools had been “abandoned” by public health in recent months. The INTO “fundamentally rejected” the decision that contact tracing will not be reinstated in primary educational settings at this time, and say they remain concerned that schools have not received sufficient funding to guarantee high quality air circulation in all teaching spaces.

The Irish Second Level Students Union, comprised of student councils, is also calling for a staggered return to school, prioritising in-person tuition for exam year students and students with special education needs, and “additional adjustments to be made to the Leaving Certificate and Junior Cycle exam papers for 2022 to account for the disruption students have faced”.

Call for installation of Hepa filters

All unions have all called for the installation of Hepa filters in classrooms.

The Etb-Schools-National Parents Association proposes that a staggered approach to reopening should be taken, starting with Leaving and Junior Certificate classes on 10 January.

“There's going to be teachers missing and classes may end up being sent home,” said David O’Gorman, chairperson of the association.

“Why open it all up on the same day and cause problems? If you just open up for Leaving and Junior Certificate first, you're guaranteed to have enough teachers, and if things are going well then open up the others,” he said.

Catriona Golden, primary school principal of Owenabue Educate Together National School in Carrigaline, Cork, said her overall feeling was one of frustration.

“Reopening as normal on Thursday will mean that the vast majority of kids in primary schools will get Omicron by the end of the month,” she said.

“For a parent who has no leave left, when their child is isolating, which will happen, what supports are there? It’s not enough 18 months on just to say ‘figure it out’,” she added.

“Staffing is also an issue. They can open schools all they want, but classes will be closing. There are just not enough staff,” she said.

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