Omicron wave: Government faces standoff with teaching unions over schools reopening

Unions and school management bodies to meet Minister for Education today

The Government is facing a standoff with the teaching unions over the reopening of schools as the largest secondary teachers’ union seeks a postponement of the reopening of schools after the Christmas holidays.

Unions and school management bodies will meet minister Norma Foley as well as Department of Education officials, on Tuesday, in advance of the planned reopening of schools on Thursday after the Christmas break.

But the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection has warned against closing the schools, saying children had suffered a range of adverse effects from last year’s closures.

Hospital Report

Prof Conor O’Mahoney of UCC said that the mental health of many children, particularly adolescents, was adversely affected by school closures last year. He also said that the impact of closures was felt disproportionately by the most disadvantaged and at-risk children.

Senior Government figures insisted that schools would reopen but the move by the secondary teachers’ union will bring additional pressure on the coalition, which has consistently said that its priority is to keep schools open and now faces the possibility of a stand-off with the unions.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said last night (Monday) it is "deeply concerned" schools may reopen without additional measures being put in place to protect students and staff.

“This would constitute an unacceptable risk in the context of the Omicron wave,” the union said.

The ASTI said it will be proposing a staggered reopening in which it said face-to-face teaching with exam years should be prioritised.

It is also calling for HEPA filtration units to be rolled-out to schools, adding it “beggars belief that almost two years into this pandemic this basic facility is not in place where necessary”.

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), said it was important to recognise that a one size fits all approach isn't going to work.

He said there will be some schools in which 80 per cent of teachers will be available to work, and others in which only 20 per cent are available.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) believes it will be necessary to utilise more student teachers to substitute classes in the coming weeks, as a result of staff members being out on Covid-related leave.

Inclusion Ireland, the charity for people with intellectual disabilities, said it remains "hopeful" for the safe return to classrooms this week.

However, the organisation called on the Minister to recognise the “disproportionate effect” school closures have on children with additional needs, adding that their return to school must be prioritised.

Meanwhile, Ministers and senior officials expect the omicron wave to peak next week, with intense pressure on hospitals growing beyond that period.

Senior sources said they believe that the rise in infections though very large is along expected lines and there was no sense that hospitals were pushing “the panic button”.

But there is understood to be serious concern amongst members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) about increasing pressure on the health system at a time when the Omicron wave has not yet peaked.

Nphet will meet on Thursday to discuss the Covid-19 situation, while the three party leaders will meet this evening (Tuesday) ahead of a planned Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Sources said a focus of this Thursday’s Nphet meeting would be finding ways to reduce people’s social contacts. There is very strong resistance in Government, however, against any move to limit household gatherings, for example.

A steep increase in patients with the virus in hospitals was reported on Monday with 804 in hospital, up 87, of whom 93 are in intensive care, an increase of six. Sources briefed on the situation said they expected the rate of discharges to increase in the second half of the week, as senior doctors return from Christmas holidays. The Department of Health also reported 16,986 further infections although these figures are "provisional" due to the high incidence of the disease.