4th January 2022
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), alongside other education unions and management, met with Minister Foley and officials from the Department of Education and Public Health this afternoon ahead of the planned reopening of schools on Thursday. Below is a brief summary of the meeting.
Public health support
At today’s meeting, the INTO set out our concerns that primary schools had been abandoned by public health in recent months, at a time of great unease and anxiety when case numbers among 5-12 year olds multiplied by 50 to 1100 per day by mid-December. The union received commitments today that designated public health staff nationwide would reengage with the sector.
Today, Government finally agreed to provide teachers with the protection of medical grade face masks. The Department of Education must ensure adequate supplies of this type of face mask are made available to schools.
The primary sector remains in the midst of a staffing crisis, with schools up and down the country struggling to source substitute cover when they need it. While the Department of Education initially failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem, recent steps to enable student teachers to undertake paid substitution work in schools on a short-term basis has enabled more schools to remain open when it might otherwise not have been possible. At today’s meeting, the union was informed that more student teachers will be made available to undertake this work during the next two months at least.
Staffing levels will have to be closely monitored by the Department of Education daily as we move forward, and we must ensure up to date and accurate data on case numbers among children and staff is available. Of particular concern is the lack of any HSPC report in the last two weeks although public health did share up-to-date graphic data at today’s meeting. They also committed to regular meetings with unions and management in the coming weeks, at which data on Omicron can be interrogated.
At today’s meeting, the INTO was advised that school inspectors will be made available to help schools who cannot access substitution cover to make decisions regarding how best to give priority to children with additional needs and younger classes while other classes may have to return to remote learning from time to time.
We fundamentally reject the findings of the public health review which has concluded today that contact tracing should not be reinstated in primary educational settings at this time. We will continue to demand that this essential support be reinstated.
After much deliberation, children of primary school going age are now eligible for vaccination in line with the protection afforded to the adult population. Public Health confirmed that many thousands of children have already received their first vaccine and they acknowledged representations made by this union for an earlier roll out of booster vaccines to those aged in their twenties. Public health assured us today that they would ask NIAC to ensure that all teachers receive their booster jab as soon as possible.
The airborne nature of Covid-19 took some time to be fully understood, however the evidence is now beyond dispute. High quality air circulation must be at the heart of mitigation measures in our schools. We remain concerned that primary and special schools have not received sufficient funding to guarantee high quality air circulation in all teaching spaces.
Many schools are reporting difficulties in procuring HEPA filter devices locally. The Department of Education needs to intervene with immediate support for these schools.
We will study updated guidance on ventilation to be issued by the Department of Education but the whole area must be kept under constant review and measures taken to ensure every classroom has high quality air circulating within it.
Public awareness campaign
With ever changing rules and guidance, parents deserve clear and simple messages ahead of each new term in school. Ensuring everyone in school communities is informed and fully understand the latest guidance, avoids situations occurring which undermine efforts to keep our schools open.
After nearly a month of engagement with officials from the Department of Education and Public Health, the government has agreed to the INTO’s request for the rollout of a multi-lingual campaign from tomorrow. While this is welcome, it should have happened earlier and it must be maintained for the remainder of the school year.
A meeting of the CEC will take place tomorrow to consider recent developments.