Representatives of parents, teachers and students report on the biggest issues they face in returning to school
Schools have experienced teething problems in the first week back - some minor, some major.
Representatives of teachers, parents and students appeared before the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response to report on some of the pertinent issues.
Here’s what we learned as Education Minister Norma Foley appeared before the committee for the first time.
There had previously been mixed messages from the Department of Education on rapid testing for schools in the event of a positive Covid-19 case.
Ms Foley confirmed that priority testing will be available for schools, but only in the event of an outbreak. “We’ve had a number of engagements with the Department of Health and HSE where we have raised this issue. It will be provided where there is an outbreak. They will be treated no differently to other environments where there has been an outbreak.”
However, she said the department will not be changing its stance on blanket testing for entire classes and years. The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) called on the department to introduce testing for all pupils in close contact with a confirmed case.
Ms Foley said there will be no blanket policy to test entire classes or years.
A total of 547 out of 750 teachers who applied for a risk assessment have so far been declared very high risk. The assessments have been carried out by Medmark on behalf of the Department of Education. “Where there is a case bordering between high risk and very high risk, they will err on the side of caution,” Ms Foley said. She said teachers who didn’t meet the criteria will be afforded a second opportunity to be assessed by an independent panel.
A significant number of special needs assistants (SNAs) are supplying care to students without wearing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), the committee heard.
Trade union Fórsa said it had received reports of schools requiring SNAs to reuse face masks and refusing to purchase the necessary PPE.
Andy Pike, head of Fórsa, said he is concerned about staff with underlying health conditions working side-by-side with students.
Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh slammed these reports as “shocking”.
“Have we learned nothing from our nursing homes?” she said. “This is something which needs to be investigated urgently.”
In her opening statement, Ms Foley said: “It is important to note the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, public health HSE”.
She said all decisions on appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by public health.
It will not be up to individual schools to decide whether a partial or full school closure is deemed necessary.
“School management will be informed as and when such actions such as exclusion of children or staff; partial or full closure, are deemed necessary on public health grounds.
“If the school is not so informed, it has not been deemed necessary,” she said.
As part of the Government’s roadmap to reopening, €375m was allocated in additional funding to help implement the safe return of schools.
Ms Foley told the committee that so far, payments to schools exceed €160 million.
She said the payment of the annual minor works grant to primary schools, totalling approximately €30m, which typically is paid in either December or January, has been brought forward.
The minister said there would be a requirement for an “additional 1,600 buses and drivers” and that funding was being put in place to make that possible.
However, no timeline was provided.
She said the department was not responsible for private transport services.