Jess Casey: Stop saying ‘schools are safe’ if you want them to ever reopen again

Confused public health messaging has upturned the reopening of special schools
Jess Casey: Stop saying ‘schools are safe’ if you want them to ever reopen again

If there hadn't been such a rush to pin reopening to a particular date, we would be in a better position than we are now: a mess of division, frustration, and anger.

If the Department of Education wants to see schools reopened anytime soon, it has to stop saying "schools are safe". The phrase is driving teachers and principals cracked.

Because they know it is not as simple as saying "schools are safe". It’s more accurate to say "schools appear to be safer than most other places if infection prevention measures are in place and the benefits of children attending generally outweigh the risks of the virus to them".

It’s less catchy but it's more broadly reflective of the actual situation on the ground. It’s also more representative of the public health line. But yet, "schools are safe" is what they have been told, every time they’ve tried to raise concerns. They are told "the public health advice is clear". But if it was that clear we wouldn’t be where we are now.

The last fortnight has been awful – the families of society's most vulnerable children have been put through two public, painful u-turns regarding their children's education. 

Teachers and SNAs have been accused of being heartless for simply worrying about their own health and that of their families. 

On top of this, it may not have been the intention but the statements from the department, and subsequent statements from the ministers, following the unions’ stance have, so far, had the effect of sticking a middle finger up at someone as they walk away from an argument. This is at a time when cool heads are needed.

At the heart of this impasse, unions say, is fear. Fear among their members, caused by mixed messaging. Part of this is due to the presence of new variants, which appear to be more transmissible, and realistically cast doubt over any data relating to schools collected last term. 

Part of this fear is also down to hearing the CMO urge people to work from home only to be told a few days later, "we didn't mean ye". 

Concerns have been slowly building into fears since September, and accelerating as the daily case numbers grew each day. It is not just teachers who have them, it is parents too. 

One way to address this moving forward is to publish figures relating to schools, students, and their educators with more context, another big ask for an already under-pressure public health service, but one necessary to build any kind of trust.

Feeding into all of this as well is the low level of trust following the handling of lifting restrictions for a "meaningful" Christmas. 

There was never going to be an easy solution to this given the level of anxiety, but rushing things hasn't helped. 

Adult disability day services have remained open. The difference here is that a framework was agreed upon last May. It wasn't rushed, and it didn't play out via the media. 

The plans also include a level of flexibility, based on the individual needs of the person accessing services. The same flexibility was not included in plans to reopen schools on Thursday, which focused on a return to in-person learning.

Principals were essentially given five days to sort out staffing, board of management meetings, discussions with parents for arrangements basically contingent on the agreement of unions, all on top of running their schools remotely. 

For children in mainstream schools, it meant creating arrangements different from any they had before. Principals were understandably worried about rushing plans that could end up doing more damage than good. 

If a parent decided not to send their child into school out of fear of the virus, there was no guarantee that remote provision would continue to be provided for their child. 

The sad part of all of this is that if there hadn't been such a rush to pin reopening to a particular date, we would be in a better position than we are now: a mess of division, frustration, and anger. 

Parents, teachers, SNAs, advocates have all received abuse online this week. Ultimately, they share the same goal – to get children their education, and give them some semblance of normality during this god-awful time.

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