Full reopening of schools may be unlikely this autumn, secondary teachers warn

ASTI says students may end up with ‘blended’ learning due to physical distancing rules

Public health guidance published on Wednesday says schools should reopen with physical distancing of at least 1m between students in most cases. Photograph: Getty Images

Public health guidance published on Wednesday says schools should reopen with physical distancing of at least 1m between students in most cases. Photograph: Getty Images

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Second-level teachers’ unions have warned that a full reopening of schools for all students may be unlikely this autumn.

In a submission to the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19, which sits on Thursday, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) will say some form of “blended” model of education provision may be necessary .

In its opening statement to the committee, the union will say that no matter how creative schools are in using their available rooms and facilities, they will not be able to accommodate everyone on a full-time basis.

“Even a one metre social distance task will be extremely difficult, but not insurmountable,” the submission states.

The union said it would be unacceptable if different social-distancing rules were to apply to facilitate the reopening of schools than were in place in other workplaces or in wider society.

‘Vulnerabilities’

“There is the additional consideration that a number of staff members and students, because of their vulnerabilities, may still have to work or study outside of the classroom,” the statement adds.

“Enormous difficulties will also have to be overcome in the management of practical classes in woodwork rooms, metalwork rooms, art rooms, PE, music and home economics, together with the cleaning requirements necessary between classes . . . we think that a phased return to school may be necessary.”

Mr Christie said the union had a significant number of members with underlying conditions or who were immuno-compromised.

These teachers were “extremely worried about returning to workplaces that placed them in greater danger of contracting or transmitting the virus than if they worked in another environment”.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) will tell the committee its members have no magical immunity to Covid-19 and must be treated as are other workers.

“They must have confidence that their safety is being protected and that they are not being lulled into or forced into a false and dangerous sense of security,” its submission states.

“Other workers are protected by social distancing, developed and comprehensive return to workplace plans carefully implemented, personal protective equipment where necessary. Teachers ask no more than to be treated with the same level of concern,” the union says, in its submission.

‘Peddling a myth’

The TUI said it was also concerned “that some of the public discourse is peddling a myth that the virus is not transmitted by children”.

“While there is evidence that young children are less susceptible to the virus than other cohorts of the population, it is also the case that older students have been shown both to contract and to transmit the virus.”

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said there was frustration among schools across the country that this much-needed guidance was not published earlier.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said the union has consistently stated that public health advice must be paramount in decisions around schools’ reopening.

“We will examine the published documents in detail and will continue to work towards reopening in a manner, and with resourcing, which minimises risk,” he said.

Physical distancing

Public health guidance published on Wednesday says schools should reopen with physical distancing of at least one metre between students in most cases.

The Department of Education last month warned that physical distance requirements of one metre could result in some year groups attending school just 2½ days a week.

However, a department spokeswoman said this estimate was based on a distance of one metre between students’ desks rather than individual students. As a result, many more students will be able to attend school full-time under the new guidelines.

The extent to which school can reopen as normally as possible will be determined in conjunction with talks with education stakeholders over the coming weeks, she added.

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