Government scraps plan for partial reopening of schools

Remote learning to take place until February 1st after unions and principals voiced opposition

 Minister for Education Norma Foley speaking at a Government press briefing on Wednesday when the plan was initially announced. Photograph: Julien Behal

Minister for Education Norma Foley speaking at a Government press briefing on Wednesday when the plan was initially announced. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

The Government has abandoned plans to bring Leaving Certificate students into class for three days a week from next week amid mounting opposition from teachers and principals.

Plans to reopen special schools or classes for children with special needs have also been scrapped pending “further engagement with all education stakeholders”, Minister for Education Norma Foley said.

In a statement on Thursday night, Ms Foley confirmed that all schools would remain closed to students from Monday, January 11th.

From this date, all students, including children with special needs, “will resort to a programme of remote learning in line with the rest of the Government restrictions”.

The move follows an announcement by secondary teachers’ unions that they would not be cooperating with the plan to reopen schools on Monday.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) welcomed the Government’s decision “now taken, somewhat belatedly, by Government to finally do the right thing”.

It said its members would not be attending their workplaces for in-school teaching next Monday, “or on subsequent days but will be available to provide emergency remote teaching and to support their students including, in particular, students with special educational needs”.

Ms Foley said officials from her department on Thursday met education partners including trade unions, and school management bodies to discuss the safe provision of in-person learning to pupils in special classes and special schools and to Leaving Certificate students, and remote learning to other students from next Monday.

The online meeting was also attended by senior public health specialists.

Ms Foley said, in the meeting lasting over two hours, public health experts provided their reassurance that it was safe for both students and staff to operate schools at this time, utilising the preventative measures that were in place.

She said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) continued “to hold the clear view that schools are safe places, as outlined in the letter to Government from the CMO, published today,” she said.

“It is with regret that I announce that, despite the confirmation by public health that schools remain safe, that children in special schools and special classes and Leaving Certificate students will not be extended in-person learning.”

She said: “It remains my strong belief that this period of time is crucial for the mental wellbeing of all children with special needs.

“I also felt it was the right thing to extend in-class teaching to our Leaving Certificate students who are approaching a crucial time in their exam year.

“Unfortunately I am left with no alternative but to pause the limited reopening on Monday to allow further engagement with all education stakeholders.”

School opposition

One Dublin secondary school had earlier announced that it would defy the Government decision to partially reopen schools next Monday.

Alexandra College in Milltown, south Dublin, told parents and students that a partial reopening would pose unacceptable health risks.

Principal Barbara Ennis said: “I honestly believe we’ve made the right decision and I would be very surprised if the Government does not reverse the move to reopen schools. Many other schools are up in arms. I think we’ll be the first of many not to reopen,” she said on Thursday afternoon.

She said schools, unions and principals had not been consulted over a decision which would jeopardise the health of staff and students.

Alexandra College in Milltown, south Dublin, said it would not reopen for Leaving Certificate students.
Alexandra College in Milltown, south Dublin, said it would not reopen for Leaving Certificate students.

“As principal, I am personally responsible for the health, safety and wellbeing of staff. If we reopen, I cannot guarantee any of those things. I’d be going against the very tenets of my job,” she said.

A number of other secondary schools had met to consider taking similar action in light of the public health threat posed by Covid-19.

Union decision

The ASTI’s standing committee met on Thursday afternoon, noting it had not been consulted before the reopening announcement.

In a statement, the ASTI said it had not been provided with the necessary assurances that schools were sufficiently safe for students and teachers at this time.

It said its standing committee had decided to direct its members not to cooperate with the arrangements announced by Ms Foley on Wednesday.

“The decision is based on significant concerns about the health and safety of students, teachers and other staff,” it said.

Speaking after the meeting, ASTI president Ann Piggott said: “The ASTI has repeatedly sought sufficient assurances that schools are safe for students and teachers at this time, in the context of the new variant of Covid-19 circulating in the community and the alarmingly high numbers.

“We engaged with the Department of Education and with public health officials today. Unfortunately, the assurances we sought have not been forthcoming.”

Another school principal, who declined to be named, also signalled on Thursday it would remain closed due to logistical problems in delivering in-person and online classes.

“We have a full online timetable ready to go, but now our teachers are being asked to come into school for sixth years for three days and teach the rest online. How is that possible?” the principal said.

“Many teachers have primary school children. This will weaken provision for all other students. It’s a mess.”

 

In the past the Department of Education has ordered schools to reopen where they have closed for safety reasons without the approval of public health officials.

When asked what consequences there will be, if any, for schools which decided to remain closed against a departmental order, a spokesman earlier on Thursday only said Leaving Cert students “will attend school three days a week” from Monday next and that the department will fund all necessary infection prevention measures.

Special schools and special classes had been due to reopen for an estimated 18,000 pupils.

Resistance

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has also expressed doubt over the partial reopening.

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, its director Clive Byrne said: “A blended approach of face-to-face and online learning is the optimum model but sufficient time is needed to consider and agree all aspects of this in full.”

Labour leader Alan Kelly said he thought the public was ahead of the decision-makers on this issue.

“This is nobody’s fault,” he said. “In fairness to the Government, they actually tried something. But the community’s transmission is at such a level, there’s so much worry out there.”

A number of special schools had also signalled they would not reopen on Monday. However, special needs campaigners said it was vital that in-class teaching resumed.

Adam Harris, chief executive of the autism charity AsIAm, said special classes and schools “must be supported to remain open at this most critical time”.

“These educational settings provide essential support for some of the most vulnerable children within our State. Children with the most complex needs are only able to learn in appropriately structured environments, with highly skilled staff in clear routines,” he said.

“The evidence is indisputable: remote learning, owing to cognitive differences, does not work for these young people. We saw the devastation this caused during the last lockdown with children losing hard-won skills in the areas of communication, social interaction and personal care, becoming totally overwhelmed and distressed at home and losing the supports which will ultimately determine the quality of life and level of independence a person can enjoy as they grow up.”