One of the leading teachers unions has called on the Department of Education to reconsider its plans to resume in-person special education later this week.
Following an emergency meeting of its members on Monday evening, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said “grave” safety concerns of special needs teachers have not been adequately addressed.
Earlier on Monday, about 16,500 special needs assistants (SNAs) and teachers tuned into a Department of Education webinar on Covid-19 addressed by public health officials ahead of a planned reopening of special needs schools on Thursday.
The webinar, which was broadcast live on YouTube due to overwhelming demand, was held to address some of the concerns of teachers due to return to classrooms.
In a statement, INTO said teachers remain “understandably and justifiably anxious” about their own safety and the safety of their pupils while community infection levels remain high.
“While teachers across the country are keen to get back to the classroom, they are scared, ” said the union’s president, Mary Magner. She added that teachers are committed to supporting their vulnerable pupils, but “the safety of staff is vital”.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said the Government must take responsibility for “poor and untimely communication and mixed messages over the past two weeks”.
He said that while progress had been made on some key concerns in recent days, there is more work to be done before the union can be satisfied schools can reopen safely. He said the union will continue to work with the Fórsa trade union and with the Department of Education.
In a statement, the Department of Education said Minister for Eduation Norma Foley undertook "intensive engagements" with education partners last week. It said a "shared understanding" had been reached between the minister and department officials with the education partners. The department said engagement will continue.
Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the current “mess” is “entirely of the department’s own making”.
Mr Ó Ríordáin said the partnership approach to reopening schools, which he said has been effective since September, has been “damaged through mismanagement” by the Department of Education.
“Any Government attempt to blame trade unions for its own ineptitude should be rejected by all who genuinely want to see a safe return for special educational needs students,” he added.
Many of the SNAs who subscribed to the Department of Education webinar are members of Fórsa, whose education committee is to meet on Tuesday to discuss its course of action.
The deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn told the webinar that public health had continued to prioritise the opening of schools during the pandemic, where possible, but that this had been thwarted by the spike in the disease in recent weeks.
“There is no zero risk environment but that being said the challenge we all have as a society is to balance up the risks and the benefits and to look at things in the round,” he said.
Between September and December incidence rates in children were far below that of the general population the webinar was told - in October only about 10 per cent of cases were linked to school outbreaks.
“The experience to date does align with the fact that schools in themselves are a safe environment but . . . whenever you have levels of transmission like this the reality is that schools and everything else we provide are threatened and unfortunately that came to pass,” Dr Glynn said.
Official advice to Government in January was that schools should close for a defined period of time but that measures be taken to protect more vulnerable children.
Talks with various representative groups have been ongoing on that subject and broader issues around the reopening of schools generally.
It is understood that a number of obstacles remain in securing the approval of teachers and SNAs. These include childcare for those staff who would return to teaching duties, and some recognition of those with underlying health conditions. Rostering and timetable arrangements are also under consideration.
Meanwhile, talks relating to schools generally, and the prospect of Leaving Certificate students returning to classrooms in February – a key target of Minister for Education Norma Foley – are expected to continue throughout this week and into next.
Teaching sources have said optimism for some return to classroom-based teaching grows as Covid rates continue to decline, but any such development would be subject to public health guidance and comfort among teaching staff.
"All the stakeholders are in ongoing meetings and assessing the situation," said Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI). "Every teacher wants to return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible but where there is confidence and trust in the system."
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said contacts are ongoing.