Teaching unions seek more staff to enable full reopening

Government appears set to expand summer support programme for special needs pupils

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Talks between the Department of Education and education partners are set to continue this week on the steps required to reopen schools safely in late August. File photograph: The Irish Times

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Teachers’ unions and school managers say a full reopening of schools will not be possible unless panels of substitute teachers are hired for schools.

Talks between the Department of Education and education partners are set to continue this week on the steps required to reopen schools safely in late August.

Senior Government sources say the reopening of schools at the end of August is the highest priority for the new Minister for Education Norma Foley, with one senior figure insisting schools would open “come hell or high water”.

But the teachers’ unions have expressed worry about the safety of their members, especially since official advice issued last week suggested that one-metre social distancing should be in place for older children.

Ms Foley said the guidelines provide a good platform for further discussion to allow for the “optimum” return to school.

She has declined to say definitively whether the guidelines will allow all students to return to education.

However, political sources pointed out that the advice was issued on an interim basis, and could be revisited as the department, school managers and teaching unions continue to seek to agree a path to reopening the schools.

One issue which will feature in the talks with the unions is the need for additional staff cover for sick leave, which unions says is likely to increase dramatically in the coming academic year.

This is on foot of official public health advice that anyone with potential symptoms of Covid-19 should stay away from work.

While classes at primary level are usually “split” between others if a teacher is sick, this will not be possible under new health guidelines.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said a “comprehensive level of staffing, including substitute for all absences, will be required”.

The reopening of schools at the end of August is the highest priority for the new Minister for Education, Norma Foley, senior Government sources said. Photograph: Alan Betson
The reopening of schools at the end of August is the highest priority for the new Minister for Education, Norma Foley, senior Government sources said. Photograph: Alan Betson

It said a pilot scheme for panels of substitute teachers – who are hired full-time to cover absences – was needed nationwide to ensure schools can continue to operate.

School managers have also told the department that unless similar supports are in place, many schools may end up closing on a regular basis.

At second level, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland has suggested trainee teachers should be fast-tracked into paid teaching to support schools.

Specifically, it says students in the second year of the professional master of education programme should be able to work in the classroom as an exceptional measure.

It has also called for additional staff support for school principals to ensure the planning and preparation for a safe return to school for pupils, teachers and other staff can be advanced.

Support programme

Separately, the Government is to consider on Monday expanding its “summer programme” of education support for hundreds of currently ineligible special needs pupils.

Controversy was sparked after it emerged that students with Down syndrome in secondary school were unable to access the programme.

It is understood that the new Minister of State with responsibility for special needs and inclusion, Josepha Madigan, is to request that the programme’s criteria be widened to include these students.

A memo is due to be brought to Cabinet on Monday altering the eligibility criteria which would allow almost 700 additional children participate in the programme for children with complex needs.

Currently, the number of eligible children in the programme is about 24,000, about 9,000 more than the traditional July provision scheme.

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