28th October 2020
The INTO has, during the mid-term school closure, continued to press the Department of Education and health authorities to provide additional data, supports and assurances to schools ahead of the second part of the term. Correspondence and meetings have resulted in the updates outlined below, and there is a commitment to ongoing, weekly engagement involving the department, public health professionals, school management and unions.
HSE School Teams and contact tracing
Following pressure from the INTO through a coordinated political advocacy campaign and a robust media campaign – the Government has confirmed that the Department of Education will roll out a national network of dedicated public health teams for schools from next week. The teams will be staffed by both public health and education department officials and will provide a dedicated helpline for schools dealing with a positive case.
In order to ensure a thorough risk assessment is undertaken in schools, INTO has insisted that all staff members associated with the person testing positive and the Lead Worker Representative be consulted to inform the process. INTO is now advising our members to act accordingly in the event of a confirmed case.
Additionally, the HSE has pledged to recruit additional contact tracers with HSE CEO Paul Reid admitting that additional public health professionals are needed for schools following calls from this union.
INTO raised concerns in respect of the lack of out of hours support for school principals in particular. The Department of Education and the HSE have committed to providing out of hours support for schools moving forward and asked that all schools provide their contact details to both the department and HSE.
School based public health data
At a meeting with the Department of Education and NPHET today the INTO again reiterated our ongoing concerns in respect of the lack of data transparency of testing and detection rates and contact tracing in school settings, the inconsistent application of close and casual contacts, the need to review the use of face coverings given the level of covid-19 transmission in the community and the need for an urgent and thorough public health review of protective measures in school settings.
Following today’s meeting it has been agreed that engagement with unions, management and officials from the Department of Education and NPHET will be considerably scaled up, meeting weekly with the latest school based data provided to the group at each meeting.
A full review of the education sector in September and October will be finalised this week. A detailed assessment of the use of face-coverings in primary and special schools will also be undertaken.
Review of sanitising products
On foot of INTO representations, a full review of all sanitising products being used in schools is now well underway.
As members will be aware INTO have sought priority and free access to the flu vaccine for all teachers. The Department of Education has clarified that all pregnant teachers, teachers aged over 65, those with serious underlying health conditions and teachers who are carers or who live with someone who is at risk of flu because of a long term health condition will receive the free flu vaccine.
We will continue to demand that all teachers, who are front line workers receive priority access to a free flu vaccine.
Schools pathway document
This important publication is currently being reviewed by the Department of Education and we have demanded stakeholder engagement on this review to ensure the concerns of members in respect of this revised publication are taken on board.
The Department has agreed to revise the current circular dealing with this issue and a revised draft will issue to INTO and school management for consultation shortly.
Heating and ventilation in schools
INTO raised the concerns of members in respect of managing ventilation in schools as we head into Winter. The Department have committed to publishing further guidance on ventilation to support schools.
As so many members have alluded to in correspondence and engagement at branch and district meetings, we are rightly concerned about the significant levels of community transmission. The Department of Education has now agreed that a public awareness campaign will be rolled out to raise public awareness on the best approaches to keeping covid-19 out of schools.
The INTO will continue to engage intensively with the Department of Education in the coming days.
INTO General Secretary John Boyle said:
While the vast majority of our members want our schools to stay open, they must be safe spaces for employment and learning. It is beholden on the government to match its desire to keep schools open with a commitment to working with education stakeholders and to resourcing the system to best deal with the effects of the pandemic in primary and special schools .
The commitments secured from government today go some way to addressing some of the increasing concerns we have about the viability of an absolutist approach to keeping schools open. Reliable and transparent public health advice and data must be at the heart of decision making and we need to recognise the challenges and strain on our schools and especially on our school leaders at this time.
We are committed to engaging with both the Department of Education and members of NPHET every single week to highlight the concerns of the thousands of teachers and principals in our primary schools, without whom our schools simply would never have opened in the first place.”