Government plan for partial reopening of primary schools published    

Following the reopening of special schools on 11 February and the resumption of special class provision, the INTO entered further intensive consultation with the Department of Education regarding the government’s plans for a phased return to schools of mainstream primary classes.

The INTO has informed the Department that our members are extremely frustrated by the unhelpful and contradictory media speculation undertaken by senior members of government. Such unnecessary speculation has caused uncertainty and confusion for our members, pupils, and their parents, throughout what was agreed to be a confidential consultation process. These premature statements and miscommunications from members of government show a lack of respect for our members, who feel they are learning of significant developments via speculative media commentary before plans have been finalised.

The INTO has made it clear to department officials this morning that we expect decisions on the return of further classes to be led by up-to-date public health advice. We also expect confidential consultation with the education partners.

The proposals announced by the government today have been influenced by consultation with the INTO and other education partners. The Department of Education has informed the INTO that the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, on behalf of NPHET, fully supports the return of the specified junior classes from 1 March. While several risk mitigation measures sought by the INTO were accepted, other measures are still under review and we will continue to push for their adoption.

The INTO’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) has been briefed on the government’s plan for the return to school of junior classes – (junior infants, senior infants, first and second class) from 1 March.

After a strong intervention by the INTO on 19 January, when this union called on government to postpone the reopening of schools, and the government’s subsequent abandonment of that approach, the CEC sought that additional supports, safeguards, and risk-mitigation measures would be put in place prior to any phased reopening of mainstream primary classes. The CEC also made it clear that schools needed time to plan for the return to school buildings.

Over the last number of weeks, the INTO has raised the concerns of our members at regular stakeholder meetings. We now understand that detailed documentation on the government’s plan will issue to schools from the Department of Education. Time is of the essence and it is imperative that this guidance is issued much faster than plans for the reopening of special schools and special classes, which were published a few weeks ago.

Under the government’s plan, and following advice from NPHET, teachers who work with junior classes (junior infants to second class), including those who teach multi-grade classes, and all their pupils will return to their schools next Monday, 1 March. Special schools will fully re-open on the same day.

Throughout this pandemic, this union has always insisted that decisions related to our schools must be led by definitive and up-to-date public health advice.

We understand that public health authorities have now formed a clear view that this first phase of reopening mainstream primary classes should proceed as outlined, subject to the strict compliance with risk mitigation measures secured by the INTO.

The INTO has insisted on, and the Department of Education and NPHET have agreed to, keeping the issue of schools under constant review ahead of any decision to reopen more primary classes.

The INTO has sought clarity on the likely impact of the virus in the coming weeks. Following a 50% decrease in the 14-day average of infection rates since 1 February and the lower reproduction rate of the virus, NPHET projects that the public health landscape is expected to improve further by next Monday.

Ahead of guidance being issued, we can confirm that, following consultation with the Department of Education, we have ensured several necessary additional supports for primary and special schools will be in place.

These include:

  • Robust risk mitigation measures.
  • Augmented school support teams in all HSE areas to provide advice, contact tracing and bulk fast-track testing where required.
  • Flexible arrangements for staff in high-risk health categories to continue working from home throughout the first phase of the return of mainstream schools. Pregnant teachers will not be required to return to classroom teaching for the phased period and should continue to work remotely until further notice.
  • The publication of school-based testing and tracing reports, on a weekly basis, to inform our understanding of transmission rates in schools during the interim period.
  • High grade face masks to be provided to any teacher who works in special education or who may be delivering personal care or attention including the administration of first aid. These masks are readily available through the schools’ procurement process.The INTO encourages members to request these be provided by your school and wear them daily. 
  • A public awareness campaign designed to ensure compliance with public health advice in schools and to remind wider society of its responsibility and role in supporting the sustainability of schools during the pandemic.
  • Confirmation that education staff will be in the first one third of the population within the vaccination schedule. The INTO will continue to press for further clarity on the timeframe within which vaccines will be made available to our members.

It should be noted that several issues raised by this union were not included in the latest proposals. Specifically, the provision of air ventilation monitors, face masks for pupils in senior classes and regular antigen testing, which the INTO sought, were not taken on board by the government.

While we accept that public health has a clear view that these measures are not necessary at this time, it must be pointed out that we continue to argue that they would help to minimise the risk of infection spreading in classrooms, thereby creating safer school settings for our members and their pupils.

Face masks

It is our view, as educators who worked in schools during level 5 restrictions last year, that a mandatory face mask policy would also help to reduce the risk of infection in schools as we slowly reopen next month. While the Department of Education and NPHET remain of a different opinion, and whilst we respect the expertise of our public health authorities, we nevertheless encourage INTO members to wear a high-grade face mask in the coming weeks and to insist that these be provided by your school.

In addition, we encourage schools to adopt a strict approach to congregation zones, mandating that any adults and pupils congregating in the vicinity of school buildings wear a visible face mask.

No member of the public or parents/guardians should enter the school facilities without wearing a visible face mask. Parents should not enter school facilities unless essential support is required during drop-off/collecting times.

Moving forward

The INTO will continue to provide support, advice and guidance to members in the coming days and weeks. We expect intensive engagement with the Department of Education and the education partners to continue. This will enable us to raise member concerns on an ongoing basis and ensure we seek swift solutions to any issues which arise. A particular feature of our ongoing engagement with the department will be enhanced scrutiny of the weekly reports from public health on testing and tracing in primary and special schools.

Ahead of any more mainstream classes reopening, the INTO will be seeking that all changes are informed by further, up to date public health advice.