Unions representing school staff have expressed alarm over the Government’s decision to partially reopen schools for special needs and Leaving Certificate students describing it as “rushed and reckless”.
The Cabinet agreed on Wednesday to keep most schools closed until February 1st in order to help suppress the spread of Covid-19 in the community.
Secondary schools will reopen for three days a week for up to 60,000 Leaving Cert students from next Monday.
In addition, special schools and special classes will reopen for an estimated 18,000 pupils.
Minister for Education Norma Foley said the decision had been made in the best interests of students, especially those facing into exams and with learning disabilities.
She said schools and teachers had proved resilient in the past in reopening schools and she was convinced the education sector would “not be found wanting” in reopening again in a limited way.
For all other students, schools will be required to put in place remote learning provisions from next Monday and to communicate these plans directly to families.
Leaving Cert final-year students will attend school three days per week, with the other two days’ learning being supported by their teachers remotely.
Schools will have autonomy to decide on what days of the week students should attend school.
The three teachers’ unions said they have serious reservations over the health implications for their members, while the union representing special needs assistants said the decision was unworkable.
None have yet signalled they are prepared to take industrial action or instruct members not to turn up for work next week.
Instead, they are seeking further meetings with the department and access to public health advice which underpinned the Government decision.
John Boyle, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation's general secretary, questioned how it would be be safe for staff or children to attend special education settings.
“The rushed plan as laid out today is reckless and takes unnecessary risks which could easily be avoided. In light of public health advice, it is questionable whether attendance at such premises will be other than minimal,” he said.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it had not been provided with a "credible level of assurance by the Government that schools will be safe places" next week.
“The union has no access to medical data demonstrating that schools are sufficiently safe for students and teachers at this time, in the context of the new variant and the alarmingly high numbers,” it said, in a statement.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said it was “ gravely concerned” over the Government’s decision. Its president Martin Marjoram said: “Our members do not have trust and confidence that opening schools to Leaving Certificate students as is proposed can be safely achieved under the current circumstances.”
Fórsa, which represents thousands of special needs assistants, said reopening special schools and classes as normal “presents challenges that just cannot be met”.
However, a speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the latest public health advice the Government had received indicated that schools remain safe settings.
He said the Chief Medical Officer’s advice was that the main public health risk to reopening schools centred on the mobilisation of more than one million students and teachers.
This led to the Government’s decision to shut schools for most students during January, with “limited exceptions” for 61,000 Leaving Cert students and up to 18,000 students with special needs .