Teacher unions concerned at schools staying open amid lockdown

Unions raise issues with testing speed and risk to staff and pupils as schools to stay open

TUI president Martin Marjoram, right, says the potential risk to staff and students from keeping schools open needed to be ‘reassessed on an ongoing basis’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

TUI president Martin Marjoram, right, says the potential risk to staff and students from keeping schools open needed to be ‘reassessed on an ongoing basis’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Teachers’ unions have expressed concern over the Government’s decision to keep schools open, as the country enters a national lockdown for a six-week period.

Following a continued increase in the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalisations the Government on Monday moved the country to Level 5 of its Living with Covid-19 plan.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said it had repeatedly sought information from the Department of Education on what extra protections would be provided to schools, but had yet to receive a response.

TUI president Martin Marjoram said assurances over how it could be safe for schools to remain open under Level 5 had “regrettably” not yet been provided. The union said “urgent engagement” with department officials was required across a range of issues.

Mr Marjoram said the number of new Covid-19 cases was at a “vastly higher level than when schools first reopened”. The potential risk to staff and students from keeping schools open needed to be “reassessed on an ongoing basis”, he said.

The lack of consistency in who was deemed close contacts, and who was referred for testing following confirmed cases in schools, was causing “severe stress”, he said.

Speaking on Monday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was “necessary” to keep schools open to avoid young people’s futures becoming “another victim” of Covid-19.

‘Failed’ to deliver

John Boyle, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary, said the Government had “failed” to deliver a fast-tracked testing and tracing system since schools reopened.

“If our primary and special schools are to fully reopen after mid-term break and operate safely next month, Government must ensure that the necessary protective measures and protocols are put in place within the next fortnight,” he said.

The INTO also called for detailed figures on the number of school staff who had tested positive since schools reopened in September.

In a statement on Monday, the union said it was seeking “an urgent review” of policies on the wearing of face coverings by pupils and school staff.

It was also seeking “a clear explanation” of the difference between a close and casual contact, in who was referred for testing following confirmed cases.

The union said it was “essential” that pupils and staff connected to confirmed cases were tested within 24 hours.

Medical advice

Diarmaid de Paor, deputy general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), said the union had been demanding a review of medical guidance on the safety of schools remaining open.

“We have consistently stated that we will be guided by medical advice. However, this advice must be clear, unambiguous and must be explained clearly to us,” Mr de Paor said.

“We wish schools to remain open but they must only remain open if it is safe for them to do so.”

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