Lack of coronavirus safety guidance could put students and staff at risk during the schools summer programme – Fórsa
Absence of official guidance deterring many schools and staff from opting in to July programmes
The lack of coronavirus safety guidance to schools from the Department of Education and Skills (DES) could put students and staff at risk during the schools ‘summer programme’ for children with special educational needs – due to start next month – as well as the planned reopening of schools to all students in September, according to Fórsa.
In a written submission to the Oireachtas Special Committee on the Covid-19 response the union, which represents over 12,000 staff in primary and secondary schools, including special needs assistants (SNAs), said the Department of Education and Skills was the only large state department to fail to issue safety guidance for the reopening of services.
“Without this guidance schools do not know how many students can attend, what PPE such as masks will be required, and what new hygiene regime will required,” it said.
In a written submission to the Oireachtas Special Committee on the Covid-19 response the union said the Department of Education and Skills was the only large state department to fail to issue safety guidance for the reopening of services.
The union, which strongly backed the early resumption of services to children with special educational needs, told the Committee that the lack of official guidance from the DES was having the opposite effect by deterring many schools and staff from opting in to summer programmes, which are voluntary in nature.
It added that the publication of Covid-19 safety guidance – for the protection of students, staff and the wider community – was mandatory under a ‘Safe Return to Work Protocol’ agreed at national level between the Government, employers and unions. This applies to schools in the same manner as all other workplaces.
Fórsa’s submission states: “Thus far the focus of NPHET advice has been to stress the need for the young to protect the vulnerable. In terms of the school community, the risks of clusters of Covid-19 developing schools and spreading into the local community is real and needs to be managed rather than be ignored or downplayed.”
The union said it was therefore necessary to balance the risks against the inconvenience of using PPE and other measures such as social distancing and staggered attendance.
Fórsa said NPHET advice on social distancing should apply in schools as in wider society, but said SNAs will not be able to practice effective social distancing due to the requirement for close contact with students. The union also outlined its concerns about school staff with underlying health conditions and said schools and staff will need to be able to access Covid-19 testing as recommended by public health advice.
The union’s head of education Andy Pike said many school staff are parents themselves: “Consequently, they will be affected by reduced school attendance patterns to the extent that a full return to the workplace will not be possible if they themselves have childcare responsibilities.
The union also outlined its concerns about school staff with underlying health conditions and said schools and staff will need to be able to access Covid-19 testing as recommended by public health advice.
“Staff will be faced with additional cost pressures if they need to purchase additional childcare in the same manner as this will affect all parents. While staff can work remotely on days when their own children cannot attend school, this activity will be difficult to co-ordinate,” he said.
Fórsa’s submission outlined the effect on the prolonged closure of schools on students with special education needs. Mr Pike added: “While it is essential for schools to maintain contact with students with special education needs, some students will find remote or blended learning extremely challenging. Maintaining a regular routine of attendance at school is of critical importance for the development and well-being of many students and Fórsa recognises that a return to the pre Covid-19 school environment as quickly as possible will be essential if these students are not to be further disadvantaged,” he said.
The union’s submission also addresses the advantages and disadvantages of staggered school attendance. It said that while this would appear to minimise contact and reduce the risk of transmission, it would have a very disruptive effect on educational development as well as being difficult to organise and manage in the initial return to school phase.
Fórsa welcomed the commitment given by the Department of Education and Skills to produce comprehensive guidance, taking account of the need to develop a blended model of learning which could be necessary in the event that a second wave of the virus is identified.