The Government and teaching unions are set to clash over the reopening of schools as the largest secondary teachers’ union seeks a postponement of the reopening of schools after the Christmas holidays.
Minister for Education Norma Foley and Department officials will meet unions and school management bodies on Tuesday ahead of the planned reopening of schools on Thursday, which is set to go ahead despite the Omicron wave of Covid-19.
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.
Professor Conor O’Mahoney of UCC said the mental health of many children has been impacted by the school closures last year. He said that disadvantaged and at-risk children suffered disproportionately due to school closures.
Opposition to reopening
Senior Government figures told The Irish Times that schools would reopen as planned, however, the Coalition will face strong opposition from teaching unions.
Government leaders have consistently said the priority is to keep schools open.
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said last night (Monday) it is “deeply concerned” schools may reopen without additional measures being introduced for the protection of staff and students.
The union, which represents around 18,500 secondary teachers, met on Monday to assess the return of schools as Covid-19 cases hit record highs, fuelled by the Omicron variant.
The meeting heard that there is unease among members around the safety of staff and pupils.
“The ASTI is deeply concerned that the Minister for Education may reopen schools without putting in place additional measures necessary to safeguard the health and safety of students and school staff,” the union said in a statement.
“This would constitute an unacceptable risk in the context of the Omicron wave.
“There is uncertainty regarding the impact in schools of this significantly more transmissible variant.”
Delayed and staggered reopening
The ASTI is calling for updated risk assessments to be presented prior to schools reoopening later this week.
Union president Eamon Dennehy said: “The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place to protect all concerned.
“The ASTI will be proposing a delayed and staggered reopening of schools at a meeting tomorrow with Department of Education and Public Health Officials.
“Face to face teaching with examination classes should be prioritised.”
The union has cited concerns around safety of school communities, staff shortages due to Covid, inadequate ventilation and a lack of Hepa air filtration devices and risks to immunocompromised individuals.
“We will be asking the Minister to consider making antigen tests available for all parents and their children to be used prior to going to school as a supplement to the existing testing and tracing regime in second-level schools” Mr Dennehy added.
“The ASTI will also be calling for the speedy rollout of Hepa filtration units.
“It beggars belief that almost two years into this pandemic this basic facility is not in place where necessary.”
Ministers and senior officials expect the Omicron wave to peak next week, with severe pressure on hospitals expected to grow in that time.
Senior sources told The Irish Times that the rise in infections is 'along expected lines' and that there is no belief hospitals are "pushing the panic button".
National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) officials are said to be concerned over the rising cases.
Sources said Nphet's meeting on Thursday will look at ways to reduce people's social contacts. However, there is strong resistance in Government to any move to restrict household gatherings.
A further 16,986 Covid-19 cases were confirmed on Monday. As of 8am on Monday, there were 804 patients in hospital with the disease, an increase of 87 on the previous day, with 93 in intensive care, up six.