INTO concerned by rush to dismantle public-health supports in schools

The INTO is extremely concerned at the decision taken today to remove critical mitigation measures in schools, particularly for those with underlying health conditions and pregnant staff who are now expected to work in overcrowded settings, teaching the largest cohort of unvaccinated people in the country.

Some 100,000 children of school-going age have tested positive for COVID-19 since Christmas, with an average of 75 children under the age of 14 hospitalised every week. Sadly, some young children were admitted to paediatric intensive care or high-dependency units last week. This is the public-health context upon which decisions are being made today. Additionally, low levels of attendance of both pupils and staff have hugely impacted schools across the country for the last few months.

For these reasons, the INTO called on the Minister for Education to take a gradual and pragmatic approach to the removal of infection prevention and control measures in order to provide extra protection to everyone in our primary and special schools.

We implore occupational health and public health to closely monitor the situation on the ground, to ensure that adequate risk assessments are undertaken and – if or where necessary – recommend remote working for those who are assessed to be at highest risk.

As we look ahead to the Easter break, the coming six weeks will continue to prove challenging and disruptive for many primary and special schools. A slower approach to the withdrawal of key protective measures in schools might well have prevented this.

In anticipation that many teachers and pupils will be absent in the period ahead, the INTO reiterates our call for the continuation of the following key measures:

  • The provision of substitute cover for all approved teacher absences in order to ensure that classes are not subdivided for supervision purposes into supersized classes nearby.
  • Banking of special education days for children with additional needs when a substitute is unavailable.
  • Flexible arrangements for the taking of parental leave so that teachers whose children have COVID-19 do not have to take a full week of parental leave when a shorter period may suffice.
  • The continuation of special leave with pay for staff who are required to self-isolate as a result of COVID-19.
  • We once again call on the Department of Education to run a high-level public awareness campaign designed to ensure all symptomatic individuals stay away from schools.

In the coming weeks, we will be demanding that Government clearly outlines what additional resources will be made available for the remainder of the current school year, and the following year, to ensure that the learning losses experienced by pupils in primary and special schools will be adequately addressed. The further expansion of supply panels to areas not currently covered by the scheme will be one important step.

There will also be an acute need for support for children with additional needs. A fast-tracking of class-size reductions to bring Ireland into line with the rest of Europe will be critical, in conjunction with increased supports for children with additional needs and those whose learning was negatively impacted during the pandemic.

The INTO is seeking a meeting with the Department of Education to formally make the case for augmented supports in primary and special schools for the remainder of the school year and beyond. The union understands that the changes announced this afternoon will be formally issued to schools by way of an information note.