Staff in special schools and classes for children with additional needs should be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccines as a matter of "extreme urgency", the head of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) has said.
The group representing primary school principals said teachers in special schools were working in close contact with students “equivalent to frontline health staff.”
Speaking at the group's online annual conference, Damian White, IPPN president, said all school staff should have been given Covid-19 vaccines as a "matter of priority".
Initially the State’s vaccination programme was arranged to prioritise certain professions and those working or living in crowded conditions, following healthcare workers, the elderly and medically vulnerable.
However, the plan was redrawn to focuson an age-based approach, to vaccinate older cohorts down to younger groups, without regard to profession. The decision led to a backlash at the time from teaching unions, who had been promised school staff would be prioritised for inoculation.
Addressing the IPPN conference, Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was her "intention" to retain a number of supports introduced for schools during Covid-19 after the pandemic was over.
Measures allowing principals who also taught classes to spend one day a week on administrative work had “worked really well”, Ms Foley said.
“I’ve every confidence that it will work well again next year, and going forward from there it would be my hope and aspiration to put it on a permanent footing,” she said.
The IPPN had pushed for the introduction of an administration day for teaching principals, and it welcomed the Minister’s commitment to retain the measure post-Covid.
“Whilst we faced many many difficulties and many challenges, we overcame the vast majority of them,” Ms Foley said.
The expansion of a programme where a panel of substitute teachers covered a number of schools had also been a success, she said.
“It started off as a very small pilot, particularly last year [when] we took the opportunity to expand it considerably, and it worked well,” she said.
“It is my hope we would hope to do that going forward – there is budgetary constraints on everything, but it is my hope and expectation that we will be able to do that,” she said.
“Every measure that is in and has worked well, we would like to see that there on a permanent footing,” Ms Foley told the conference.
Mr White said the extra substitute teacher cover had allowed schools to deal with high levels of staff Covid-19 absences. “At the moment we’ve a big leak in the ship, but we’ve a bucket to bail it,” he said.
For primary school principals the year of the pandemic “has felt like a century,” he told the IPPN conference.
Covid-19 had also exposed inequalities in access to education, particularly during lockdowns and school closures, he said.
“Many children suffered from lack of space to study at home, with whole families seeking to share devices. Internet access ranges from the good to the practically non-existent, dependent on where you live,” he said.
Into the future the use of online learning was likely to be a bigger part of teaching even after Covid-19, he said.