DAUNTING is how one teacher has described the prospect of returning to a classroom full of people in Cork next week.
Concerns have been raised about the teachers, students, and parents who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 as they ready themselves and their children to go back to school.
Those vulnerable to the virus with the likes of cancer, liver disease, heart conditions, and diabetes have been left with no option but to return to school despite the risk involved in doing so.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it has been dealing with a number of queries from “extremely worried” members in the high-risk category who have been refused the option of staying at home.
Cork-based president of the ASTI, Ann Piggott, said that although this is not a large number of teachers, it is a group that “must be protected.”
The Department of Education has told teachers and SNAs, among other staff, who are categorised under Health Service Executive guidelines as very high risk for coronavirus to cocoon; but those classed as high risk have been told they “must attend the workplace unless advised otherwise” after a risk assessment by an outsourced occupational health service.
Ms Piggott told The Echo that teachers who will be moving from one classroom to another and coming into contact with “up to 200 students” are fearful to return to an environment where Covid-19 could potentially exist after “medical experts and the Tánaiste have stated that there will be outbreaks in schools.”
Head of Education at Fórsa Trade Union, Andy Pike, has written to the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, with concerns about the “approach taken to assessing the health status of SNA’s, secretaries and caretakers who are at high risk should they contract Covid-19.”
Concerns have also been raised about the safety of high risk and vulnerable students and Ms Piggott said that it “makes sense” to organise a system where the high-risk teachers could teach high-risk students remotely “as both groups would be at home as a health precaution.”
“Adults in the high-risk group are advised by the HSE to work from home, yet the Occupational Health Strategy (OHS) is offering different advice,” she said.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, criticised the Department of Education’s lack of consideration of students and school staff with underlying health conditions and said “the roadmap for the reopening of schools, and the guidance issued since then, offers very little guidance on how children, who cannot attend school because of underlying conditions, are to be supported in their education.”
The Cork South Central TD said there is “no mention at all in the roadmap of parents who are at high risk” and that “it seems likely that there is scope to resolve these issues concurrently, but currently such choices are not on the table.”
Richard Terry, a history and maths teacher at St Colman’s College in Fermoy and a member of the ASTI’s Fermoy branch, told The Echo that from what he knows, the assessment to determine what category teachers fall into is “a fairly blunt force tick the box exercise.”
“You’ve got a healthy person being told not to go somewhere with six people and yet you have someone here who is high-risk that is being told to be put in contact with hundreds of people a day, it’s absolutely disgraceful and is a massive source of stress and worry for people,” he said.
“It doesn’t take much to join up the high-risk teachers with the high-risk students or the high-risk SNA’s with high-risk SEN students and to keep both of those groups safe.”
Mr Terry said that if the issue is not looked into there will be a “huge scandal when people find their health takes a downward spiral because they were forced back into a potentially dangerous environment.”
He said that the lack of action in this area is “probably driven by an awareness that we have a teacher shortage in this country for a lot of subjects and there’s a need for everyone to work and be in a classroom.”
The principal of the newly opened Owenabue Educate Together school in Carrigaline which will be welcoming 11 junior infant students upon opening, Trina Golden, believes that the issue of high-risk students and students with high-risk family members returning to school is “being ignored by the department.”
“There’s no facility at all for parents to keep their children at home without it being reported to the Education Welfare Officer and schools aren’t being facilitated or allowed to support high-risk kids at home.” Ms Golden added that there are a lot of parents who “have to decide between putting their children’s lives or their own lives potentially at risk or home schooling and potentially losing the school place”.
She said that the department now needs to “step up and ensure that there is a facility for parents to keep their kids at home and that the resources and staff are there to support them” which would have a knock-on effect in making classroom numbers smaller “which would be a positive, because the classrooms are too big for safety.”
Ms Golden said that although it is slightly overshadowed by Covid-19, that she is “delighted” to be opening the new Educate Together school in Carrigaline and said that “it is the start of what will be a very large and hopefully very successful school.”
Principal of Kinsale Community College, Fergal McCarthy, said that preparations ahead of reopening to 1,200 students on August 31 are well advanced with hand sanitising stations in each classroom, a one-way system devised within the school building and temperature check technology in place.
The school, which produced visors for healthcare staff when there was a PPE shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, will be issuing each student with their own face visor upon return.
“While the measures have been strong in respect of the spread of Covid-19, what we’ve tried to concentrate on and take efforts towards is preventing Covid-19 coming into the school in the first instance,” he said.
Mr McCarthy said that they are asking parents to not send their child to school if they have not completed the 14-day quarantine upon return from a country that is not on the green list or if their child is feeling unwell.
Teacher at Greenmount Primary School Elaine Linehan who was involved in holding a farewell ceremony for the school’s sixth year students back in June said she is “really looking forward” to welcoming back students and wished her sixth class the very best with their secondary school experience.
“I think all the kids need to go back, I have three daughters who are in a different school and they’re so excited about going back and to see their friends and I’m excited for them to go back, I think they’re ready and the schools have put in place procedures for the safe return.
“This is going to be our new normal and we need to get used to it and the kids will be brilliant because they’re the best people in the world to get used to things,” she said.
Greenmount Primary School will welcome back half of its students on Monday morning and the remaining half on Tuesday.
St Colman’s College teacher Richard Terry said that although he recognises that “we need to get kids into school and provide students with more stability, structure and normality”, that he is also “quite anxious” about returning.
“I’m anxious about going into an environment that in every other context and advice is something to avoid, we’re supposed to be six people in an indoor environment and we’re going into situations where you could have between 20 and 30 in a very close environment so having spent the last six months being careful to now suddenly being thrust into what is the very opposite of that is quite daunting,” he said.