Following lengthy talks today (Friday) with the Minister for Education and Skills, Norma Foley TD, and senior officials from the department, Fórsa trade union has said measures discussed should boost confidence among its members about schools reopening at the end of August.
Fórsa represents more than 15,000 workers in education, including school secretaries, caretakers and special needs assistants (SNAs) in primary and secondary schools.
The union’s head of education Andy Pike said: “We’ve been having a series of engagements with the department as the reopening of schools directly affects many students with additional care needs and thousands of our members. These discussions culminated in a lengthy meeting this afternoon with the minister and senior officials.
“Those discussions have proved very constructive and we are now satisfied that the department has taken account of the latest public health advice on reopening schools issued by the HSE on 24th June. This provides for both a degree of social distancing and also separation in order to reduce interactions in a school setting to minimise the risk of transmission.
“In practical terms schools will attempt to maintain the recommended one-metre social distance in classrooms. As it’s very difficult to maintain this provision with younger pupils in primary schools, as an additional measure younger students will be divided into smaller groups or ‘pods’ in order to minimise interaction with other pupils and staff to reduce the risk of transmission.
“In secondary schools where this approach is not possible, the emphasis will be on a stricter interpretation of social distancing, taking account of public health advice,” he said.
Mr Pike said specific issues for SNAs are expected be addressed in the department’s guidance, due for publication next week. “These include clear advice on the use of PPE, such as face visors, aprons and gloves when providing personal or intimate care for students, and clear advice on infection control measures to be adopted to ensure the safety of students and staff,” he said.
Mr Pike said staff in special schools will be advised to utilise HSE standards of infection control on the cleaning of equipment and materials. In mainstream classes, SNAs will be advised on procedures for cleaning and disinfecting commonly used materials such as laptops, learning aids, toys and books. In addition, Mr Pike added that the guidance will state that the deep cleaning of schools is a specialist role and not appropriate for SNAs to carry out.
While funding to meet the Covid-19 challenge of €75m is to be allocated for the schools sector, Mr Pike said this will be supplemented by further additional funding to be announced next week in respect of the enhanced cleaning regimes necessary in each school: “The combined sources of funding should enable schools to begin work on improving access to running hot water for the purposes of handwashing, to convert existing space into new classrooms, and to make other necessary improvements to school infrastructure,” he said.
Mr Pike said that while these works may have commenced prior to the start of the school year, work may not necessarily have been completed by the time the schools reopen. He also said that the amount of funding available may be insufficient and would need to be kept under review, as the sums allocated will also be used to employ many more replacement SNAs secretaries and caretakers.
Mr Pike said agreement had also been reached on the appointment of Covid-19 lead worker representatives from the cohort of non-teaching staff, ensuring that Fórsa members can carry out this role if required.
He said the issue of the treatment of staff with underlying health conditions remains outstanding. The union had requested confirmation as to the continuation of special leave arrangements once schools are opened: “It’s already been noted that school secretaries, who are not employed under public service terms, and who are in a very high risk category, will be kept on payroll if they can’t attend work.
“Further details on this will be negotiated next week. At this stage we are confident that no Fórsa member with an underlying health condition will be asked to put their own health at risk, further work is necessary in the coming week to agree the final terms of the procedures.
“The department has provided clear answers to all but one of the questions raised by Fórsa in respect of the reopening of schools, that remaining issue relating to underlying health conditions is more than capable of resolution. On the basis of the discussion today with senior officials and the minister, we believe the guidance to be published next week will address the key issues of how to manage social distancing and how best to maintain the safety of students and staff to the greatest degree possible.
“Their position on the use of PPE has moved on significantly, which will be key to boosting confidence about the reopening of schools, and we hope that the content of our discussions today will be reflected in the guidance when it’s published next week,” he said.