Schools could end up closing if there is a cold snap due to the lack of adequate ventilation systems in classrooms, teachers’ unions have warned.
The Oireachtas education committee heard on Thursday from unions representing school staff on measures needed to ensure classes can continue to operate in a safe and sustainable manner.
Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, said a survey of its members indicated that a vast majority of schools did not have a ventilation system and many were keeping windows open to increase air flow.
“As colder weather sets in, keeping many classrooms warm and ensuring they are appropriately ventilated is proving to be a big problem in many schools,” he said.
“Teachers and students are there in their coats, in many instances. If a period of very cold weather comes in the coming weeks or months, many schools are likely to have to close for the duration.”
The HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre has previously advised that schools without ventilation systems should consider installing indoor air quality meters which indicate when there is poor ventilation.
Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, said the Department of Education must take the advice of public health authorities and install air quality meters in every classroom.
“This will ensure that students and teachers are not forced to teach and learn in freezing cold classrooms,” he said.
“There’s no point in protecting us from Covid if we all end up getting pneumonia,” he added.
John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said his understanding was that air quality meters cost about €200 to install in each classroom.
The savings on heating lost from having to keep windows constantly open during winter months would be considerable, he said.
Andy Pike, head of education at Fórsa – which represents thousands of special needs assistants (SNAs) – said his union was concerned at the lack of clarity regarding the provision of personal protective equipment to school staff who cannot maintain the recommended two metres social distance.
He said official Department of Education guidance states that the use of basic surgical grade face masks is “optional, not compulsory”.
However, he said public health authorities have since stated that such surgical grade face masks should be provided to SNAs where they are required to carry out intimate care for students.
“This has led to a ridiculous situation whereby an SNA works side-by-side with a student for over six hours, but may then only receive the protection of a basic grade mask when taking the student to the toilet,” he said.
Mr Pike said Fórsa had this week started to provide a stock of surgical masks to SNAs who could not access this equipment within their school.
“We were able to purchase a stock of these masks at a cost of 20c each. The Department of Education’s procurement framework enables schools to bulk buy at much lower costs,” he added.
Mr Boyle also said all staff who work in schools should be prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
He added he was not seeking that teachers should get the vaccine ahead of health workers, but that they should be prioritised as they were frontline workers.
He also called on the Government to send a strong message to families who travel abroad over Christmas that children will have to restrict their movements in line with public health advice prior to returning to school.
Mr Boyle, along with other teachers’ union leaders, also called for the “scandal of unequal pay” to be resolved “once and for all” within the next public sector pay agreement.