18th October 2021
In light of comments by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on the deteriorating public-health landscape, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is today calling for:
- The immediate reintroduction of public-health risk assessments, testing and contact tracing in primary schools.
- The expansion of the supply panel scheme to cover all primary and special schools.
- The reinstatement of substitute sequencing, including banked days for children with additional needs.
- The commencement of the school’s pilot scheme for antigen testing, recommended in April 2021.
- An urgent review of the age restriction on the use of face coverings.
- A meeting with the Department of Education and education stakeholders to discuss the supports needed.
PHRAs, testing and contact tracing
The INTO is calling into question the premature cessation of public-health risk assessments, testing and contact tracing in primary schools. This change in policy last month, which was challenged by this union, was informed by a view at the time that further relaxation of public-health measures was on the cards. That is now far from clear with Dr Ronan Glynn and other leading public health experts openly raising alarm in recent days.
The union believes that the current infection control and prevention measures, including the pods and bubbles and the wearing of facemasks by staff must remain in place beyond Halloween. In no circumstances should a mainstream class be split among other classes, when the teacher is absent.
The INTO yet again exhorts the government to commence a public awareness campaign designed to ensure that those with Covid-19 symptoms do not attend schools. There is anecdotal evidence from members on the ground that symptomatic children continue to attend schools.
As a union, we are extremely concerned that no weekly school mass testing report has been published since the 4th of October 2021. The failure to produce this report at a time when positive cases among 5- to 12-year-old children has remained consistently high, has added to the level of concern and anxiety in school communities.
Despite the fact that outbreaks have continued to occur in schools throughout October, boards of management and school leaders have been stripped of invaluable public-health support.
Time and time again, public health leaders have told us what happens in the community happens in our schools. With concerns being raised about the spread of the virus in our communities, now is the time to raise our shield once more to protect our schools. It is not a sustainable position to expect our schools to operate as normal when infection levels in our communities continue to spiral.
Pressure on our primary schools is further exacerbated by recent changes in the sequencing of substitution cover, implemented three weeks ago. This time last year, when schools were under severe pressure to source qualified cover for absent colleagues in mainstream classes, principals were allowed to deploy teachers from non-mainstream classes. When this happened, schools were permitted to bank these days, which are vital for children with additional needs, allowing the support time needed to be recouped later in the school year. INTO is today calling for the system of banking these days to be immediately reinstated.
The union further calls for the swift expansion of the supply panel scheme to cover the remaining 650+ schools not currently benefitting from the scheme. The INTO welcomes efforts being made to source additional substitutes to cover short-term teacher absences.
The INTO is today again calling for the immediate commencement of the schools’ pilot scheme for antigen testing. In light of the worrying public-health indicators, we must use every tool at our disposal to protect our school communities. This pilot scheme was recommended by an expert review group last April, and despite unnecessary procrastination it has yet to be delivered. The Taoiseach has today indicated he is a “strong believer” in the use of antigen testing.
The INTO is also calling for an urgent review of the age restriction on the use of face coverings. In their August report, HIQA committed to a further review within two months and we now believe it is necessary to look once again at this issue in light of decisions government may be making in the coming days.
The INTO has sought a meeting with the Department of Education and stakeholders in the primary education sector. The union is keen to work with fellow stakeholders, in a solutions-oriented manner, to ensure that appropriate supports are put in place for the second half of this school term.
All members of the school community must ensure they comply with public health advice during the forthcoming mid-term break.