INTO appears before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response

INTO President Mary Magner and General Secretary John Boyle appear before the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee this morning. The INTO team will discuss the latest developments in respect of the reopening of schools and the challenges which remain.

General Secretary – opening statement:

A Chathaoirligh agus a Theachtaí Dála,

I am grateful for the opportunity to appear before you this week as over half a million pupils and over 50,000 staff are returning to their primary and special school buildings.

There is excitement and trepidation in equal measure.

While INTO members are taking on the challenge of re-starting the formal school system, it is the responsibility of this government to ensure that all reasonable steps have been taken and all protections are in place to safeguard the members of the school community.

I would like to acknowledge the progress made to date by the Department of Education, with strong input from stakeholders including the INTO.

The publication of the Roadmap was welcomed.

The urgent calls for additional resources and a centralised procurement system for the purchase of hand sanitizer and PPE were listened to and acted upon.

The additional grants to schools are also welcome and the efforts to ensure that they were paid in a timely fashion are appreciated. We also welcome the establishment of the supply panels and other teacher-supply measures as a way to improve access to substitute teachers in the event of a teacher becoming sick or self-isolating with Covid-19 symptoms. INTO further welcomes the announcement that no new school self-evaluation activities will be expected next year, and that the inspectorate’s role will be more advisory and supportive.

I want to commend the serious level of work that has been ongoing in schools throughout the country all over the summer, especially the sacrifices made by principal teachers and those who directly supported them.

Classrooms have been reconfigured and stripped of extraneous furniture, new sanitation stations have been installed, one-way systems mapped, signage placed everywhere, and communication with parents is ongoing. These practical matters are all in addition to the many classroom management issues that are involved in supervising and reassuring pupils, creating class bubbles and pods and adapting curriculum and teaching and learning to fit the new reality.

Returning safely to school is a goal shared by all members of the school community. Ongoing communication via a national media campaign is vital to ensure ‘buy-in’ from the entire school community. Clear advice and guidance for parents in relation to supporting their children will be required throughout the year.

We must facilitate teachers who are in the high risk category. We called for and received assurances that a robust appeal mechanism will be available to those who dispute original medical evaluations conducted by the occupational health service. We must also ensure that everyone in the education sector has quick access to testing and tracing and that there is an ongoing surveillance of the system.

Schools are an essential service and now a new front line in the battle against Covid-19. Our teachers want to be back in school but they must have full confidence that where a case arises “all necessary measures”, to use the words of Dr Ronan Glynn, will be taken to protect students and staff.

It’s essential employers show flexibility for workers whose children have to self-isolate.

School Leaders will need ongoing access to guidance in addition to their leadership and management days to deal with the additional responsibilities that continue to fall on them. The introduction of planned changes to the system and all non-essential paperwork should be suspended for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.

Ongoing stakeholder consultation will be vital to ensure that any changes in circumstances can be anticipated, planned for, or reacted to in a timely and comprehensive manner.

Just because schools are open, does not mean that there is nothing further to be done. It is imperative that a review be undertaken, by the end of September, to assess the reopening of schools and identify improvements which may be necessary. This review must be cross- governmental and include input from HSA, HSE, the Inspectorate and stakeholders.

Unless we are vigilant and in a position to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, schools may risk a second period of enforced closure.

Covid-19 has been a transformative experience for everyone in Irish society. In relation to Irish primary schools, it has shone a harsh light on years of underinvestment, the massive size of our classes and the inadequate spaces they inhabit. No other European country had to issue illustrations of classrooms which were expected to accommodate 32 children in a class.

It has also highlighted the degree to which the system relies on the goodwill and professionalism of our school leaders. Principal teachers have taken on – almost single-handedly – the enormous task of managing the safe return to school of hundreds of thousands of children. School leaders must be supported and facilitated to continue this vital work in the coming school year.

We need to take this opportunity to re-evaluate what is important in our society, acknowledge what are the essential services, and we need to value them accordingly. For our younger teachers, this means that the scourge of pay inequality needs to be eliminated once and for all.

In relation to Covid-19, no-one can know what lies ahead this school year. However, I am proud to say that Irish primary school teachers have answered the call and responded to this unprecedented situation – often despite personal anxiety – with the professionalism and integrity and duty of care that is their hallmark.

Go raibh céad maith agaibh.