Trevor Laffan: Criticism of SNAs was close to home — virus is great divider

Trevor Laffan
Trevor Laffan: Criticism of SNAs was close to home — virus is great divider

Teachers are anxious to get back to the classrooms, but safety is paramount, says Trevor Laffan. Picture iStock

IF you still don’t know how real or how scary Covid-19 is, then you should listen back to Brendan O’Connor’s recent interview with Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell about her battle with the virus.

She said it was petrifying, and when it had sucked all the energy out of her, she was almost prepared to give up and drift away because it would have been easier.

There’s no doubt about it, the coronavirus is nasty. It makes us sick, sometimes with devastating consequences, it screws the economy and basically turns our world upside down. Nobody is immune from the fall-out.

It’s devious too, in the way it divides communities and sets us against one another. 

Everyone has faced criticism during the pandemic, the Government, public health advisors, the pubs, the restaurants, the congregating youngsters, sports fans, holidaymakers, and visitors. The teachers and the special needs assistants got it in the neck too.

Larissa Nolan wrote a piece in The Times UK recently about the continued closure of schools for children with special educational needs. She was very unhappy with the teachers’ unions who, she said, were making unreasonable demands to the detriment of the children.

According to Nolan, Education Minister Norma Foley’s plan to reopen schools just for these children — who comprise just 4% of the entire school population — was clear-headed, reasonable and both morally and legally right.

She claimed it was a decent compromise by an Education Minister and a Taoiseach who are both former teachers themselves. Surely nobody could oppose the opening of special schools, which we knew to be an essential service?

But the teachers’ unions could, and Nolan said they rank the needs and interests of their members higher than those of special-needs children. The unions’ focus is furthering their own agenda.

Strong stuff, but that’s her opinion and she’s entitled to it. Looking at the other side of the coin, though, the INTO general secretary John Boyle, said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging. That had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions.

Mr Boyle said an education department webinar, which attracted more than 16,000 participants, clearly demonstrated the level of fear and anxiety among school staff.

Their fear seemed reasonable to me, because there is no shortage of it in this current climate.

As someone who is retired, it’s easy for me to abide by the public health advice. I stay at home and I keep to myself, so I don’t really have too much to worry about, but that’s not the case for everyone.

Life is much more complicated for the essential workers. They operate at the coal-face every day so they are entitled to every possible support to ensure their environment is as safe as it can be.

That’s not easy during a pandemic, I know. Especially when there is such a lot of uncertainty and so much we still don’t understand about the coronavirus.

We’re not sure about the long term effects for those who have had it because it hasn’t been around long enough yet. We don’t know if we will ever be completely rid of it or if there will always be some variant lurking in the shadows.

With so many unknowns, I’m slow to criticise those reluctant to go to work in circumstances that will bring them into close contact with others because, all along, the advice has been to keep our distance.

That has been drilled into us since last March. The virus doesn’t travel, people do, which is why we were told to stay away from others, so I think it’s perfectly understandable that some are concerned about returning to the workplace. But then, I have a vested interest in this argument.

My wife, Gaye, is a special needs assistant and she would prefer to be in school, but safety is a priority for her.

She’s not getting any younger and the work is very demanding, but while she finds it tough at times, she loves her job. She’s normally up early every morning, looking forward to spending the day with the children and watching them progress.

I’m told by people she works with that she is very capable and that doesn’t surprise me because she doesn’t do anything by halves. She always gives 100%.

Right now, she misses the children she is assigned to and takes no pleasure from being out of school. She wants to be back with them, but she is extremely nervous.

Larissa Nolan said every teacher she knows would go back into class for kids who need them, even if everyone had to wear hazmat suits. It’s a vocation, she said. I absolutely agree with her that it is a vocation but none of the reassurances from the government at the time encouraged my wife or her colleagues to return to the classroom.

Nolan accepts that special needs assistants in particular act in loco parentis and sincerely care for the welfare and progress of their students. She must also be aware that this often includes toileting, peg feeding, cleaning and comforting these kids and you can’t do that without being up close and personal. Social distancing in those circumstances is not possible. Nolan also believes that plenty of people feel teachers would change their tune if they were put on the Covid payment instead of getting their full salaries. Personally speaking, I think that’s unfair but it’s an example of the division this virus is creating within our community.

Thankfully, a plan is in place for a gradual reopening of the schools and nobody is happier to hear that than the teachers and SNA’s.

It would be nice to think that this will bring an end to the blame game, but I have my doubts.

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