Substantial progress on safety issues in schools is needed to avoid industrial action, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has warned.
The union’s executive committee met on Friday to consider the outcome of a ballot by members in favour of industrial action – including strikes – over safety concerns in schools.
The committee was told that there has been “improved engagement” with the Department of Education and public health authorities and a number of clarifications have been provided. It is expected that this engagement will continue.
However, ASTI president Ann Piggott said "substantial progress" on safety issues in schools was needed to avoid industrial action.
These steps include faster testing and tracing turnaround times , a redefinition of close contacts, IT resources for students and teachers to facilitate continuity of learning, and reasonable accommodations for teachers in “high risk” categories.
“We need much more progress in order to get to the point where teachers believe that the safety of students and teachers is being prioritised during this pandemic,” she said,
The ASTI said it will regularly review progress as engagement continues.
In a separate ballot, ASTI members voted to take industrial action for equal pay for equal work, to be taken in conjunction with one or both of the other teacher unions.
In a statement, the ASTI said it will contact the other teacher unions the INTO and TUI with a view to seeking a combined effort to bring an end to the scandal of pay inequality.
“The current teacher-shortage crisis is a result of an unfair pay gap that cannot be allowed to continue. Teachers affected are on a different pay scale than their colleagues for their entire career,” said Ms Piggott.
“This destructive policy has caused a drop in morale and has exacerbated a recruitment and retention crisis in second-level teaching. We will be seeking to work with the INTO and the TUI to end pay inequality.”
The Department of Education, meanwhile, has pledged that a revamped testing and tracing regime is due to be implemented in schools from next Monday.
School teams will be established in each Health Service Executive (HSE) area to help ensure there is faster response and contact tracing when cases are detected.
Public health authorities, meanwhile, have said the latest data indicates schools safe settings with very low rates of transmission of Covid-19.
Dr Abigail Collins, a consultant in public health medicine, told a HSE press conference on Thursday that the latest figures are very reassuring and show that schools are in general not incubators of the disease.
HSE data from earlier this week indicate that 599 cases of Covid-19 have been detected among pupils or staff in primary or secondary schools since they reopened in late August.
On foot of these cases, just over 15,000 staff and students were tested following risk assessments which identified them as a close contact.
These tests uncovered an additional 384 cases, or 2.5 per cent of all cases tested.
The HSE said this compares to a positivity rate of about 10 per cent of close contacts in the community.
The difference between positivity rates in schools versus the community is regarded as an encouraging sign that schools are not “amplifying” transmission of the virus.
A further breakdown of these figures shows positivity rates following the testing of close contacts are highest in special education schools (3.3 per cent), followed by primary schools (2.7 per cent) and secondary schools (2 per cent).
Dr Collins said this positive data from schools was reflected in national age data, which shows that the proportion of children contracting the virus has remained stable since schools reopened.
While 14.5 per cent of cases were among children aged between four to 18 in August, that figure rose slightly to 14.9 per cent in September and 15.6 per cent in October.
Overall, she said most evidence indicated that students or staff with Covid-19 contracted the virus in the community or within their families rather than in a school setting.
For example, available evidence suggested that transmission of the virus within the school occurred in under 2 per cent of the country’s schools – or 70 out of about 4,000 primary and secondary schools.
While teachers’ unions have raised concerns over “inconsistencies” in the definition of what constitutes a close contact across schools, Dr Collins explained that each case is different and “soft” information gathered by public health teams can lead to different conclusions over the number of close contacts.