Plans to reopen schools will be ‘massively complex’

Teachers union seeks Government pledge for extra funding if €375m package not enough

Martin Marjoram, president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, right, with general secretary John Mac Gabhann, at Leinster House  earlier this month. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Martin Marjoram, president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, right, with general secretary John Mac Gabhann, at Leinster House earlier this month. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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The Government’s plans to reopen the State’s schools will be “massively complex” and demand constant vigilance for unexpected events, teachers have warned.

Martin Marjoram, president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents postprimary teachers, called on the Government to pledge extra funding if the promised €375 million package does not go far enough.

Describing the plan as “extensive”, Mr Marjoram said, nonetheless, it does not cover “every eventuality” and any unforeseen issues must be dealt with “as soon as they are identified”.

“This will be a massively complex operation and we will insist that schools and teachers be provided with every support and safeguard that is required,” he said.

Physical distancing is “absolutely critical”, he said: “Should the initial budget set out today not be sufficient, additional resources must immediately be made available if and when required.”

Disadvantaged children

The TUI said “ongoing and intensive engagement” with the Department of Education will be needed, since a number of issues have “yet to be finalised”, including the arrangements for teachers and students with health issues, and technology and other resources for disadvantaged children.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (the ASTI) also said it is concerned about the Government’s spending plans. Describing the reopening as “unprecedented and difficult”, Deirdre Mac Donald, the association’s president, demanded “regular reviews” to deal with any “emerging deficiencies”.

“The reopening of schools is one challenge,” she said. “However, the measures that are being put in place must be sustained for as long as the threat of the pandemic remains. The health and safety of the whole school community is an imperative for ASTI members.”

Ms Mac Donald said her union was approaching the plan with caution. “Over the coming weeks, we will review its operation and effectiveness. We wish to make it clear that any tardiness in the delivery of supports necessary for the safe reopening of schools would be unacceptable to the ASTI.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of education and the crucial role of face-to-face interaction between students and their teachers,” she said.

Extra teachers

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said school heads would recruit the promised 1,000 extra teachers “as soon as possible”.

Extra money and help for principals and schools “must be actioned immediately” if it proves necessary: “School leaders are ready and willing to deliver on the map which has been laid out ,” he said.

Some parts of the State will not have enough substitute teachers to fill gaps left by teachers falling ill with the Covid-19 virus, or those who have to isolate because of suspicions that they might have it, primary teachers have warned.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) has pressed for enough substitutes to be available in talks with Minister for Education Norma Foley and Department of Education officials.

Under the plan, the Government has pledged to create 60 substitute panels, with each county having at least one panel . However, INTO general secretary John Boyle warned that this will leave gaps.

“The public health advice is clear – a teacher presenting with symptoms should not go to school,” he said. “That therefore creates a need for a robust substitute supply panel.”

Schools in such districts will need further help, said Mr Boyle, adding that more clarity is needed on the cover available for non-health-caused absences by teachers.

Most challenging

The next academic year will be the most challenging ever experienced and it is “ imperative” that the return is “an orderly one” and pupils and teachers have “a safe, healthy and supportive” environment.

Illustrated graphics in the Government’s plan to show teachers how to lay out their classes shows up the need to “urgently” reduce “the largest” primary class sizes in the European Union.”

Joining with secondary school colleagues, the INTO, which is broadly supportive of the measures announced on Monday, said extra spending will have to be made available, if there is a need.

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