'Constant gaslighting' of teachers means I'm saying goodbye to the job I love

Trying to keep children safe is an immense responsibility but  Mairéad de Búrca says we cannot trust government to keep us safe with a 'let it rip' policy for schools 
'Constant gaslighting' of teachers means I'm saying goodbye to the job I love

Mairéad De Búrca, a recently retired special education teacher from Co Cork.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

I retired last week from a wonderful school; I could have happily stayed teaching for another 11 years. 

However, a few things made me decide to retire early; four watershed moments and the constant gaslighting. 

I didn’t make the decision lightly, because I loved teaching and my pupils were very important to me.

The first big moment was in the summer of 2020. The new Minister for Education, Norma Foley, announced that primary school classes would return in full, without many safety measures at all. 

I was very shocked; I knew the Department of Education always cut funding to the bone, but I never realised that children and school staff’s health meant so little. 

I was devastated and wanted to resign on the spot. My family advised looking at it with a cooler head, so I waited.

The second terrible moment was when Minister Foley advised schools to use Special Education Teachers (SETs) as substitutes, if class teachers are sick. 

I lobbied from spring 2020, to protect supports for pupils who have additional needs; I contacted politicians (both in government and the opposition), journalists, and unions. 

The responses varied from no response at all to “we note your communication”. 

I was disgusted when Ms Foley effectively removed these supports from these children; it was a disgrace with which I could not co-operate.

The third was January 2021. Covid was rampant with more than 8,000 weekly cases, but Ms Foley still pushed schools to open, after the “meaningful Christmas”. 

The final straw for Mairéad de Búrca was when the Minister for Education Norma Foley reneged on her promise around vaccinating school staff. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The final straw for Mairéad de Búrca was when the Minister for Education Norma Foley reneged on her promise around vaccinating school staff. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A very well-attended, infamous webinar was provided for school staff, where we were told by people who know nothing about schools, using old data, that overcrowded schools are grand. 

That solidified my resolve to retire as soon as I could.

The fourth moment was when Ms Foley reneged on her promise around vaccinating school staff. 

The way some people attacked us for asking to be vaccinated so that schools could stay open, made me see that I had to take charge of my future myself and retire.

Gaslighting

Throughout the year, the gaslighting from many quarters was awful: “Schools are safe” was everywhere, while school staff saw the opposite reality. 

It is still ongoing; this week, an “expert” claimed it is rare for children to pass Covid on to others in school. 

The study he used (Alonso et al, 2021) was based on children aged six-plus wearing masks in school and the whole class isolating, which does not happen here. 

Our “leaders” are moving closer to the UK position of letting children get Covid on purpose. I could not stay teaching to watch little children's health being put at risk.

Parents should know that Covid safety measures have not changed materially since August 2020, despite this very contagious Delta variant. 

One change is that most staff are vaccinated, but our pupils, under 12, cannot be vaccinated yet, so they are very vulnerable, especially if they are unmasked.

If I had a child attending primary school, I would definitely give them high-quality masks to wear at school.

Schools need the same safety measures as the rest of society:

  • Acknowledge that Covid-19 is an airborne virus: Provide safety measures for it. We currently have none, except to open the window.
  • Social distancing of at least 2m: Currently, schools are instructed by the Department of Education that there is no need for any social distancing in half of the classrooms (Junior Infants to Second Class) and they only need 1m “if possible” in Third to Sixth Classes. That is not safe.
  • Smaller classrooms: To allow for social distancing, we need smaller numbers in classrooms. We have the highest class size in the entire EU. This is bad at the best of times, but during Covid times, it is just not safe to have 30-plus in crowded classrooms.
  • Masks for all: Most school staff now wear masks, even though masks are not mandated. In August 2020, we were instructed that masks would interfere with communication and advised to wear clear visors, if necessary. Teachers fought against that advice when research showed that visors are a poor substitute for masks. Some pupils chose to wear masks last year without issue. Very young children all over the world are wearing masks to keep them safe. We need masks in Ireland too, to keep our children safer.
  • Proper ventilation: Schools need HEPA air filtration systems. CO2 monitors  measure air quality, they don’t ventilate the air or purify it. CO2 monitors finally arrived, but numbers were insufficient. Colleagues mentioned receiving, for example, four monitors for 32 classrooms. They were set at 1,400-1,500ppm, whereas everywhere else it is 800ppm and 10,000 of the monitors are defective. It’s another example of ineptitude, just like the dangerous hand sanitiser, the ventilators that did not work, and the PPE without sleeves.
  • Proper test and trace:  If there is a positive case, the whole class should be sent home to isolate and get tested. Everyone in that room has possibly been infected, because Covid-19 is an airborne virus. 'Pods' are a made-up word for the tables around which children sit. Tables cannot keep children safe from an airborne virus. It’s a ludicrous idea. The test and trace needs to be seriously ramped up, not down, to protect children.

Yes, it’s annoying for parents, but that’s the price to pay when Government opens everything up, without improving school safety measures.

Keeping children safe

Trying to keep children safe is an immense responsibility; parents said to me: “I know you will keep my child safe.” 

It is a great compliment to me, but it is impossible for any teacher to keep children safe from airborne Covid. 

When staff raise school safety on social media, the vilification is horrendous. I don’t need that abuse in my life for trying to keep other people’s children safe. I resolved to retire.

I know lots of teachers who have retired recently or will do so soon. 

One teacher I know retired last year after 30 years because she had no faith in the safety measures; another because she couldn’t face more online teaching (I enjoyed it); another left after 11 years of teaching, because school during Covid was too unsafe. 

Lots of principals are also retiring because they have had to bear a very heavy burden, as described so well by the National Principals’ Forum.

I believe that many more teachers will retire. 

We cannot trust government to keep us safe, when they appear to be following UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s 'let it rip' policy for schools. 

There has been a 50% increase in young children getting infected with Covid. The Trumpian-type response of 'testing less' solves the rise in reported numbers, but it doesn’t stop Covid.

I am happy to be retired, happy to have time with my own children, but I will keep lobbying for safer schools, as best as I can. 

We ALL need to #ProtectOurChildren

  • Dr Mairéad de Búrca has just retired from teaching after 39 years in a Co Cork primary school

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