Parents must trust teachers on school reopening

Pupils’ education and teachers’ working rights are not competing interests

At no stage since the beginning of this pandemic did the INTO direct its members not to return to their schools. Photograph: iStock

At no stage since the beginning of this pandemic did the INTO direct its members not to return to their schools. Photograph: iStock

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Every member of the school community should feel safe when they return to their schools. While the prevailing scientific evidence demonstrates that, thankfully, our youngest children are not among a demographic most severely affected by Covid-19, many of our teachers are among the age categories most severely affected in recent weeks.

In the first week of this year there were 45,726 confirmed cases of Covid-19. According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), the average age of the cases was 39.

The average age of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) membership is 38.5. Nearly 80 per cent of our members are aged 30-65, and 85 per cent are under 50.

The education of pupils and teachers’ working rights are not competing interests. Each must be guaranteed Government support

These statistics – along with consistent Government appeals, telling the public “to stay at home to protect yourself and your loved ones” – have fuelled a sense of fear among teachers about any premature return to school.

Many fit the criteria of high risk, with underlying health conditions or caring responsibilities for extremely vulnerable relatives. That their tough questions about working conditions were not answered until last Tuesday is unacceptable.

Special education

Education is critical – a point the INTO has been making throughout our 153-year history. Pupils with special educational needs are particularly vulnerable and in need of additional support from the State. INTO members have been advocating for and providing such support for decades.

The Government’s stated commitment to special education, after years of underinvestment, while indeed welcome, should be backed up with tangible support.

It is a shame these pupils and their families have been deprived of vital therapeutic and psychological care and respite supports since last March.

In addition to these important points, teachers as workers have a right to demand their health and safety is protected.

However, the education of pupils and teachers’ working rights are not competing interests. Each must be guaranteed Government support.

Criticisms are an occupational hazard for any trade union seeking to challenge government plans that fail to assuage reasonable health and safety concerns. However, it has gone too far when we see our members lambasted for asking questions that all of society should be asking.

Constructive engagement is our union’s standard approach because our membership values solutions. For the past 10 months, that is the approach we have adopted.

At no stage since the beginning of this pandemic did the INTO direct its members not to return to their schools

INTO secured additional funding, equipment and staffing to support the reopening of schools; we fought for and staffed July provision and Deis summer programmes to help vulnerable students; we challenged Government when testing and contact tracing fell short.

For months we demanded weekly engagement with public health experts and, when Government finally acquiesced, we worked closely with Dr Kevin Kelleher and Dr Abigail Collins.

When individual schools encountered Covid issues, the INTO was available seven days a week – including Christmas Eve, St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Eve – to support the Department of Education and fellow key stakeholders.

We approached this crisis with a can-do attitude and sought to resolve issues to ensure the continuity of learning for our nation’s children, including those with special educational needs.

With our track record, I am asking the parents of Ireland to trust us that we would not have called on Government to reconsider their decision to reopen schools last Thursday if we felt there was another option. Trust that our members – teachers and principals you know well – wish this delay was not necessary.

Children’s art hangs on the railing of St Canice’s Boys School in Finglas. The INTO says teachers are concerned about their own safety, the safety of their families, their pupils and their families. Photograph: Leon Farrell / RollingNews.ie
Children’s art hangs on the railing of St Canice’s Boys School in Finglas. The INTO says teachers are concerned about their own safety, the safety of their families, their pupils and their families. Photograph: Leon Farrell / RollingNews.ie

Public health advice

The INTO has never rejected up-to-date public health advice. The Government claims schools are safe. But, according to HPSC reports, a startling 6,680 schoolgoing age children have tested positive between January 3rd and 16th.

As a result, teachers are concerned about their own safety, the safety of their families, their pupils and their families.

Last Monday – the same day the Nphet statistics detailed earlier in this piece were announced – deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn, whose time and input we deeply appreciate, noted during a public health webinar with teachers that “whenever you have levels of transmission like this, the reality is that schools are threatened”.

Teachers were frightened to hear that “what happens in the community happens in schools”.

Contrary to the Minister for Education’s claims that this webinar provided reassurance, the medical information was largely based on a letter issued by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, on January 5th.

This did not detail the recent increased spread of all variants of Covid-19 in the community.

At no stage since the beginning of this pandemic did the INTO direct its members not to return to their schools.

Politics should not trump the protection of people. In the words of Dr Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the World Health Organisation, “the best and safest way to reopen schools is in the context of low community transmission”.

On Thursday, we attended a constructive meeting with Department of Education officials. The INTO hopes to use this resumed process to raise the reasonable concerns of members and to find a route towards a safe and orderly reopening, which we sincerely hope will be soon.

In the meantime, our teachers, who yearn to return to safe schools, will continue to support all pupils remotely. With the vaccine being rolled out, we have hope.

Let us all show solidarity and play our part to suppress this deadly virus. John Boyle is general secretary of the INTO

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