Coronavirus threat to schools ‘overstated’ , Seanad told

Pandemic has exposed ‘crumbling’ state of many school buildings, debate hears

The threat of coronavirus outbreaks occurring in schools when they reopen has been "overstated," Senator Rónán Mullen has told a Seanad debate on the issue.

Mr Mullen said it was understandable teachers were concerned about potential exposure to Covid-19 when schools reopened, but said “there is a danger of that threat being overstated in the media and elsewhere.”

Minister for Education Norma Foley was responding to questions on the Government plan to reopen schools in the Seanad on Tuesday.

The €375 million financial support package to reopen schools includes plans to hire an additional 1,080 secondary school teachers, and funding for substitute teachers at primary level. The measures also include funding for schools to carry out minor works to reconfigure classrooms and refurbish toilet facilities.

Responding to concerns some schools would be unable to open despite the supports, Ms Foley said “there are no guarantees in anything at this point.”

“I can guarantee that there is absolute determination and absolute goodwill from all the partners in education to ensure school opens fully and school opens safely,” she said.

Senator Annie Hoey, Labour's Seanad spokeswoman on education, said the coronavirus crisis had exposed the country's "outrageous student-teacher ratios and crumbling state of our school buildings."

Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O’Loughlin said there were some schools which would have “huge problems” maintaining physical distancing between pupils.

One boy’s school in her Co Kildare area had 175 pupils and only two toilets, which she said posed a “huge concern.”

Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield said the roadmap to reopen schools had come “so late in day,” some four weeks before pupils would be expected to return to classes.

The guidance contained some “worrying omissions,” and had no plan for pupils over the age of 16 who had disengaged from education during the lockdown.

Mr Warfield said there was concern many of those older pupils “may never get back” to education.

Independent Senator Eileen Flynn said children from marginalised backgrounds, such as migrants, Travellers, or those living in homelessness, "get left behind during normal times, let alone during Covid-19.

“Since March I’ve been hearing about children who couldn’t complete their work at home, due to not having laptops ... or a safe place to call home,” she said.

The Government should see the current crisis as “an opportunity to fix what has been broken in our education system for far too long,” she said.

Senator Gerard Craughwell said he "very much doubted" targets to recruit an extra 1,080 teachers would be met, due to the "gross inequality" in pay for younger teachers.

“We have lost the best and brightest of our educators to places like Dubai, to London, to Birmingham, Manchester,” he said.

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who only had 30 seconds speaking time, criticised the large "undemocratic" allocation of speaking time to Government party Senators in the debate.

Ms Ruane said “if there wasn’t politicians in here using up the time to get back into the Dáil by talking about local politics then maybe actually those who actually cared about the Seanad would have a voice.”

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times