Fórsa addressed a meeting of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response today (Wednesday) on a review of preparations for the reopening of schools, and how the reopening is operating in practice. The meeting was also attended by teacher union representatives.
The union’s head of education Andy Pike said the re-opening of schools is of critical importance to the wellbeing of students, families and society as a whole, and identified five main areas for his report to the meeting. These were the position of staff with underlying health conditions, the availability and use of PPE, arrangements for attendance and testing, classroom supervision and the use of isolation rooms.
He said the efforts made by staff across the country to ensure our schools are ready to welcome back students is an example of the public service at its best, and should be recognised accordingly.
Underlying health conditions
Andy said the position of staff returning to school with underlying health conditions continues to cause concern, and explained that special needs assistants (SNAs) and bus escorts are not able to practice social distancing due to the nature of their role.
He said staff with underlying health conditions classified as ‘high risk’, should they contract Covid-19, have in many cases been advised to attend work in circumstances whereby their treating physician or specialist advises against this: “Some progress has been made by way of securing a review of the initial occupational health assessment.
“However we remain concerned that staff may still be directed to work side by side with students, contrary to HSE advice which states that those at ‘high risk’, should work remotely. If they do have to attend a workplace, they should practice strict social distancing, this is not possible for SNAs and bus escorts.”
Andy told the committee that staff are now reporting that a number of schools have either refused to purchase such equipment or are requiring staff to re-use face masks contrary to HSE advice, despite advice from the Department of Education and Skills that a range of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is available and can be purchased: “We can state to the Committee that there are a significant number of staff today providing personal care to students without adequate PPE. The equipment in question is in plentiful supply and is inexpensive, a medical grade face mask which provides protection against Covid-19 costs less than 50 cents,” he said.
Fórsa support the protocols for testing students and staff. Andy told the committee staff that the HSE is currently developing supports for schools for rapid testing: “Whilst we hope the incidents of Covid-19 transmission in our schools will be low, we believe there are advantages in conducting routine testing in our schools and universities. The introduction of regular testing within Schools would maintain confidence that a safe working environment for students and staff can be maintained and would provide a degree of certainty for the school community including parents,” he said.
On classroom supervision, he said Fórsa is concerned that the Department’s guidance and local practice may allow for special education needs teachers to be deployed to supervise mainstream classes to cover absences: “Such practices reduce resources for students with additional care needs. Where this takes place, SNAs are then asked to supervise a class.
“This is not their role, they are not qualified to supervise classes and they receive no recognition where they have to undertake such duties on instruction from their principal. We would prefer to see a stronger policy from the department on this issue,” he said.
Andy said the use of isolation rooms for students exhibiting symptoms will without doubt be problematic. He said examples are now emerging of schools with no space for such facilities, and cited the example of a school where the isolation facility consisted of a perspex partition within the school secretary’s office.
He added: “Difficulties are also apparent in the supervision of students awaiting collection by parents, where SNAs are routinely asked to provide supervision taking them away from their allocated students. We suggest that these arrangements are reviewed to ensure that students with additional care needs are not denied access to their SNA.