Teachers’ union calls for early finish to school term

Minister says there are no plans to extend Christmas break despite ‘wellbeing’ concerns

Minister for Education Norma Foley  rejected any suggestion of secrecy around Covid cases in schools. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Education Norma Foley rejected any suggestion of secrecy around Covid cases in schools. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

 

There are no plans to close schools early ahead of the Christmas holiday period for public health reasons, according to Minister for Education Norma Foley.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said serious consideration should be given to closing schools for the Christmas break on the afternoon of Friday 18th December rather than on Tuesday 22nd December.

It says a longer lead-in time could allow families to gather more safety over the festive period and “protect the wellbeing of all in the school community”.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said stress and anxiety levels remained “extremely high” as a result of a range of worries and concerns over the pandemic.

“This has been an extraordinarily intensive working period, and staff and students are far more fatigued than they would be during a ‘normal’ school year. In this regard, the short extension of the Christmas closure period that we are advocating would be a significant and much needed boost to the morale of all concerned,” he said.

“Closing schools on the afternoon of Friday, 18th December would also potentially allow students and teachers – together, a significant proportion of the population – to restrict their movements for a longer period before meeting vulnerable relatives – grandparents, particularly – at Christmas, should public health advice at the time permit such gatherings.”

During a meeting of the Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday, Labour Party education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD asked Minister Foley if she would consider such a move.

Ms Foley said she was aware children had lost tuition time due to Covid-19 closures earlier this year and latest public health advice was that students were better served when they are in school.

“It is not our intention at this stage at all to extend the Christmas break,”she said.

“I am aware of the importance of children being in school. That is why we have worked hard - even in Level 5 - to keep schools open.”

Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh questioned why principals were being told not to inform teachers or students of positive Covid-19 cases in schools.

She also said it was also her understanding that students and teachers were being told to ignore or switch off Covid-tracker apps on their phones.

“This ethos of secrecy in schools is putting principals, parents and teachers in an impossible situation,” Ms Conway-Walsh said.

Ms Foley rejected any suggestion of secrecy said issues around Covid cases and contact tracing were strictly for trained public health professionals.

She said education partners had agreed that principals should not have the burden of making public health decisions in addition to their regular jobs.

On the question of the use of Covid-tracker apps, she said public health experts took this data into account along with other sources of information when conducting risk assessments after positive cases.

She said new schools teams led by public health officials have been established in response to concerns over delays in contact tracing and the public health response to positive cases in schools.

The Minister said the continued opening of schools since September was a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone in the schools system and the wider school community.

“We could also take it for granted but it is worth acknowledging that we are all working differently now than in previous years and we are currently living and working under Level 5 restrictions,” she said.

“In a world that feels so different in many ways than our previous normal, the benefits to the students and wider school communities in having our classroom learning functioning as normally as possible can really be seen as a signal of hope for our society as a whole.”

While most students are very happy to be back at school, she said some students have experienced anxiety and concern regarding Covid-19.

She said latest data indicates that the number of students with “reluctant school attendance behaviour” is fewer than had been initially anticipated and that between 98 and 99 per cent of students are back in school.

Ms Foley said that while the Covid response has dominated education recently, her department was working on a new three-year action plan for education.

She said while schools would continue to operate in a fundamentally altered environment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, her priorities would focus on improving standards of teaching, learning and assessment, inclusion and meeting the needs of those at risk of education disadvantage.

Minister of State for special education Josepha Madigan TD told the committee that she was determined to ensure that supports for vulnerable pupils were improved.

She said all new school building projects currently sanctioned and all new projects from 2021 onwards would include dedicated rooms and facilities for special classes where needed.

“The allocated funding for new and improved school buildings in this year’s budget will support that objective as part of the development of new ASD (autism spectrum disorder) units and other special classes across the country,” she said.

“We are also investing in new posts, better training, and more supports for the special education sector.”?