Some 50,000 members of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) return to their schools, north and south, this morning after the Easter break.
This break is normally a time when our members pause, prepare for the next term, and attend the INTO’s annual congress to discuss how to improve and bolster the education system.
At INTO’s online congress last week, delegates representing members across the country discussed the Government’s surprise decision to unilaterally remove education staff — and other key frontline workers, including gardaí and shop workers — from the priority list for vaccinations without any prior consultation.
As a union, we have always sought to be constructive education partners. Our decision to take steps towards potential industrial action — which we sincerely hope won’t be necessary — was not taken lightly. I wish to explain the motivation for this move, which we feel has been misrepresented.
The emergency motion passed at the three teacher conferences is a precautionary move, not a definitive signal of intent to strike. We felt we had simply no choice but to consider this option due to the Government’s broken promise and its failure to set out, in detail, assurances of vaccination for teachers working in crowded classrooms before the next school year.
We are bound by our duty to safeguard and improve the conditions of employment of our members.
For the first time in 150 years, our union held its annual congress online. Delegates from around the country carefully weighed up the emergency motion. It was jointly drafted and presented to all three teacher union conferences.
This motion, overwhelmingly supported, committed us to work together towards a resolution to ensure that our members — including teachers in special schools and special classes — who are at higher risk and work in crowded workspaces will be offered vaccines at the earliest opportunity.
Some media figures trotted out the final line of the motion as a fait accompli, suggesting there would inevitably be a "strike". That is not the case. Yes, we and our teaching colleagues in the other unions are prepared to countenance using every single option at our disposal, up to and including industrial action — but that is not an inevitability.
We felt it was necessary to take this precautionary approach so that the Government could be in no doubt that there are consequences when you break your promises without even taking the time to explain what the change means.
The Government spin operation moved to ridicule our position. Inferences were made, suggesting teachers were seeking to grab the jab from the most deserving.
Let me be very clear. Never — not once — did this union ever state we wanted our members to be vaccinated before the elderly or more vulnerable members of society.
Our position, simply put, was that Government should keep its word — vaccinate our education workforce as it had committed to; prioritise workers in crowded settings alongside the elderly and vulnerable; ensure that our schools will not have to close again.
Up until a week ago, that was a position backed by our public health authorities. It remains the position of the United Nations and the World Health Organization that teachers should be prioritised for vaccination.
The Government attempted to justify its decision. We were told "it’s simply the science". Such a claim ignores the fact that this Government, time and time again, has consistently balanced the advice it receives from Nphet with its own overarching objectives.
We, as education partners, have regularly had to call out the Government for failing to heed or seek up-to-date public health advice.
However now, all of a sudden, it’s only too easy to paint the teachers as science deniers when we question the details. Its claim also ignores the fact that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) had recommended that key frontline workers be prioritised.
Some common sense needs to apply if we want to keep schools safely open. Are crowded settings suddenly no longer a key consideration? Should everyone below 65 go back to work in all settings if age is the only consideration?
Indeed, the CSO recently concluded an experimental analysis, using a mix of international data and census returns, to identify a direct correlation between working in proximity to others and exposure to disease.
Niac, having noted these findings, made recommendations for the overhaul of the vaccine rollout, specifically mentioning adults in crowded settings. With the largest class sizes in Europe, are we not to believe teachers work in crowded settings?
We implore Government to consider the impact of Covid-19 transmission on school staffing and on the ability for schools to remain open. We ask that they explore ways to protect our education workforce.
We have sought to open dialogue with the Department of Education and our public health authorities. Industrial action will be the last resort.
If Government is willing to talk, as always, we are willing to be constructive.
Now is the time for cooler heads to prevail and for us to work together to explore creative solutions to ensure we protect our education system.
- John Boyle is INTO general secretary.