Government hopes to get agreement on school reopening within weeks

Talks with unions to focus on Leaving Cert and phased return for all school students

Minister for Education Norma Foley said the department would work with `all stakeholders' to achieve a `full and safe reopening'. File photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Education Norma Foley said the department would work with `all stakeholders' to achieve a `full and safe reopening'. File photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Government is aiming to reach agreement with school staff unions over the phased reopening of all primary and secondary schools within weeks, according to sources.

Despite the blow caused by the withdrawal of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) from Leaving Certificate talks, the Department of Education will continue discussions this week over the return of sixth-year students.

Once agreement has been reached, sources said the focus of talks with unions will switch next week to a phased return for all students at primary and second level.

While the pace and scale of reopening will be guided by public-health advice, there are hopes that a full return to school will be possible over a three-week period in March.

A successful reopening of special education and a continued decline in Covid-19 cases is seen as being crucial to building confidence that schools are safe environments.

Saying that she is committed to a “full and safe reopening” as soon as possible, Minister for Education Norma Foley said the department would work with “all stakeholders” to achieve the goal.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has called for a €100 million fund for additional tutoring and supports for children to “catch up” on schooling missed during the pandemic.

‘Damage’

Extra help is now vital to repair the damage done to children’s education, said the party’s spokespeople on children and on education, Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

“The damage being done to children is profound,” Mr Ó Ríordáin said, pointing to the difficulties faced by children from poorer backgrounds. “We have to undo the damage that is being done.”

He said a fund of €100 million would be “a start” and could help provide individual tuition for schoolchildren and could also be used to reduce class sizes.

Mr Ó Ríordáin also warned of a “lost generation” of teenagers who will not return to school. “For some families it is a difficult time, but for others it is a time they won’t recover from,” he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin said it was “understandable” that some teachers were reluctant to return to school “but the damage to children is profound”. However, he stressed that the return to school could only be achieved with the agreement of the teaching unions.

“Everything has to be done by agreement . . . and then a final decision can be made. But it appears we are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin denied Labour was “pandering” to the teachers’ unions. “Let’s remember who the enemy is. The enemy is the virus,” he said.

He also said the Labour Party was in favour of a system of calculated grades for the Leaving Cert, rather than running the examinations in June.

‘Too soon’

Meanwhile, Solidarity-People Before Profit has said it was “too soon” for Taoiseach Micheál Martin to plan for the reopening of schools and construction.

“The Taoiseach can’t predict what the level of infections on a daily basis will be at Easter,” Bríd Smith TD told reporters at Leinster House on Thursday.

She said for schools and construction to reopen, daily infections needed to be “way down to around 10-20 a day”.

“I think it’s too soon for the Taoiseach to be talking about opening construction and schools and then in the same breath saying restrictions will remain until after Easter,” she said.

Rise TD Paul Murphy said it was “unavoidable” that the country would have to stay in lockdown.

He said that construction should not be reopened and advocated “taking a more cautious approach to reopening schools”.