Fórsa will seek clarity on a range of health and safety measures required to address the significant risk that the Omicron Covid variant poses to school students and staff when it attends discussions with the education minister and other stakeholders this afternoon (Tuesday). The union says the education department will have to adopt a much more flexible approach to managing the health and safety issues when school reopen from Thursday.
In a statement today, Fórsa said the ability of schools to provide a safe service depends on:
- The resumption of contract tracing and testing for students in mainstream primary classes. Refusing to identify cases of Covid-19 in primary schools cannot be justified, The use of antigen testing needs to be monitored in the same way that PCR test results are recorded. The use of PPE by SNAs and other staff should be reviewed by the HPSC to ensure adequate protection is available for staff dealing with Omicron, a variant that is much more transmissible.
- Public health supports for primary schools that were withdrawn on 27th September 2020 should be restored. The HSE must collect accurate data on Covid cases in our schools.
- All schools should be required to conduct a risk assessment of air quality. Air filtration devices such as HEPA filters should be installed in each room where CO2 readings are unsafe. Where schools require assistance with purchasing these devices the Department of Education has a duty of care to intervene and assist schools with a rapid procurement programme.
- Schools need the ability to plan for periods of remote learning where services cannot be maintained due to Covid outbreaks or Covid related Staff sickness. Guidance should prioritise student groups for whom the maintenance of direct learning.
- The use of masks and uptake of vaccination by primary students should be encouraged through a high profile public information campaign.
Fórsa’s Head of Education, Andy Pike, said: “The responsibility for ensuring schools can open safely later this week rests with the Minister of Education. Unions have been calling for improved health and safety measures for over a year, even at this late stage the Minister could take steps to address the obvious deficiencies. It is clear that not every school will be able to fully open due to the prevalence of Covid within the school population.
“Where a service can be provided safely the school should open. However, where there are clear deficits in health and safety provision or where large numbers of staff are suffering from Covid related illness it may not be possible for every class to return from Thursday. Risk assessing the situation in every school will be essential for the safety of all students and staff.
“Fórsa is prepared to work with the Department of Education on improving the mitigation measures in schools, however we will not accept the imposition of any derogation by the Secretary General which reduces the level of heath protection for SNAs, school secretaries or caretakers, changes to self-isolation protocols must be based on public health considerations not business needs and should be the subject of discussion between Government and ICTU.”