Union concerns mount over planned school reopening next week as rate of Covid infection accelerates
“All staff who are expected to continue to work in classrooms should be prioritised alongside frontline healthcare staff for the vaccine” – Fórsa’s head of education Andy Pike.
Fórsa trade union, which represents more than 12,000 staff in primary and secondary schools throughout the country, including special needs assistants (SNAs) and school secretaries, has called on the Government to review its policy of keeping all schools open during Level 5 public health restrictions.
The union made the call as Cabinet met today (Wednesday) to make a decision on whether to move the country to full Level 5 restrictions.
Fórsa’s head of Education Andy Pike said: “The arbitrary policy of keeping all schools open during Level 5 public health restrictions needs to be urgently reviewed as the number of infections accelerate and a new, more highly contagious, Covid strain has been detected here in Ireland.
“Both these factors mean that schools will be operating in a very different public health environment when they re-open in January. The number of young people and adults testing positive for the virus is increasing, and will continue to rise once staff and students return to school. It is now time to consider a more flexible and responsive approach to schools re-opening,” he said.
The current policy is arbitrary and appears to be based on limited data from in-school testing rather than a more rounded view of cases in both schools and communities.
Mr Pike added that the Government has not yet indicated what level of transmission, within the school population, would prompt a decision to review the continued opening of schools: “The current policy is arbitrary and appears to be based on the narrow, limited, data from in-school testing rather than a more rounded view of cases in both schools and communities.
“Staff, students and parents need to know exactly what level of transmission would result in a change of policy. The priority of any Government must be to maintain safety.
The number of young people and adults testing positive for the virus is increasing, and will continue to rise once staff and students return to school.
“That means additional measures are now needed in our schools system. Nobody wants to see schools closed due to the pandemic. However, the current inflexible and unresponsive approach to the pandemic in our schools risks just that. It’s time for policy makers to adopt new measures to ensure services are provided as safely as possible,” he said.
Mr Pike said a more flexible and responsive approach to schools provision required the implementation of a range of measures including:
- The development of plans to move to online learning:
“In view of the rising number of infections and the clear evidence that the new strain of Covid is much more transmissible by children, schools should now develop plans to move to online learning if necessary, which will ensure continuation of provision should some or all schools be required to close for limited periods. This would avoid a repeat of the situation in March whereby school closures were enacted without a clear plan as to how best to maintain provision. Such proposals should encompass those with special education needs and other vulnerable student groups who may need bespoke services.”
- Staggered attendance patterns:
“Steps to minimise the number of students on site at any one time through staggered attendance patterns would allow for genuine social distancing between students and would enable staff to minimise risk. Attendance should be prioritised for those student groups who would be most affected by any disruption to face-to-face learning.”
- Prioritisation of school staff for the Covid 19 vaccination:
“The existing vaccination schedule recognises that SNAs and bus escort staff are exposed to the disease and should receive the vaccine. If schools are to remain open during a worsening pandemic then all staff who are expected to continue to work in classrooms and in cramped school transports should be prioritised alongside frontline healthcare staff for the vaccine.”
- Further investment:
“The Minster for Education should confirm continuation of funding for substitute staff, including SNAs, cleaning, hygiene and PPE prior to schools re-opening.”