Covid-19: Calleary calls for understanding on teachers with high-risk conditions

Dáil hears claims children being left ‘on the side of the road’ over lack of school transport

Former minister for agriculture Dara Calleary: called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to allow the reopening of applications for school transport. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Former minister for agriculture Dara Calleary: called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to allow the reopening of applications for school transport. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Former minister for agriculture Dara Calleary has called for “consistency” in public health guidelines and “understanding” for teachers with high-risk health conditions who are expected to return to the classroom.

In his first address in the Dáil since he resigned his portfolio over the controversial golf dinner in Clifden, Mr Calleary also called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to allow the reopening of applications for school transport “so we can actually see what the level of demand is”.

The Mayo TD was speaking during a marathon five-hour Dáil debate on back-to-school arrangements, further and higher education and special education.

During the debate, a number of TDs raised concerns about the lack of school transport and criticised the August deadline that many parents missed to apply for school transport for their child. Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice claimed children were being “left on the side of the road”, even in cases where applications had been made and where parents had paid on time but received no response.

Mr Calleary said he had received numerous queries about occupational healthcare company Medmark, which carried out assessments for the Department of Education of high-risk teaching staff.

A total of 547 teachers were deemed “very high risk” and would be facilitated to work from home, but almost 650 teachers who had been deemed high risk were told they were not sick enough and ordered back to school.

Mr Calleary warned that “in some cases the high risk conditions seem to contradict public health advice for other professions in terms of going into work and working from home”.

He called for “some sort of consistency and some sort of understanding of teachers” with high-risk conditions.

Central hub

He also called for engagement with the local rural Link service to assist school transport and called on Ms Foley to create a central hub so that if there are excess coaches in some areas, they could be “relocated to areas where there are shortages”.

In response, the Minister said the school transport scheme “is a massive daily logistical undertaking” involving more than 120,000 children, including 14,200 children with special educational needs. In 2019, they were transported in more than 5,000 vehicles at a cost of over €219 million.

Because of public health restrictions, post-primary bus services now operate at 50 per cent capacity, Ms Foley said. Bus Éireann is seeking additional operators to provide services, and she expects “to see additional capacity coming on-stream over the coming weeks”.

Rise TD Paul Murphy said there were three schools in his Dublin South West constituency where the school bus had been cut entirely and parents were being forced to find their own alternative transport.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly told Ms Foley she needs to “talk to the Green Minister who has transport under his wing to facilitate a comprehensive transport system for schoolchildren”.

Mr Fitzmaurice criticised the early deadline for school transport applications and said: “We have children being left on the side of the roads by your department because they wouldn’t allow parents to pay in the past two weeks.”

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