A covid crisis is set to hit our classrooms as schools return from the Christmas break with confusion surrounding how many teachers will be able to report for work.
Principals could face many classrooms without teachers on Thursday as the numbers isolating due to Covid continues to spiral.
There is so much confusion about Covid testing and isolation that teachers’ unions cannot predict how many teachers will be able to work.
They will be seeking clarity from the public health sector and the Education Minister Norma Foley at a crunch meeting today to discuss the school reopening plan.
“We don’t yet know how many teachers will be able to report for work because they don’t know how long to isolate from, how long to isolate to, and whether or not those dates will change,” said Teachers’ Union of Ireland general secretary Michael Gillespie.
“There needs to be clarity also on if different rules apply if you are a positive case or a close contact.
“Our members are asking us what ‘Day One’ (of isolating) is. Is it when they get a positive antigen test, or is it when they get a positive PCR test?
“They also don’t know if the isolation period is 10 days, seven days, or five days, and all these things need to be clarified.
“You could also have a situation where you have a good number of teachers turn up on Thursday, but few students, or vice-versa.
“Then you have to ask if it would be better to close the school and turn to some sort of online classes. There are so many questions,” Mr Gillespie said.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it expects to be briefed at the meeting on the review of public health measures in schools.
“In particular we want to see quicker response times and interventions from public health when multiple cases arise in primary schools,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle. “We are reiterating our call for a more creative, effective and widespread public awareness campaign to be initiated by Government before schools reopen, to ensure parents and pupils are aware of the symptoms of Covid-19 and of the absolute necessity for full compliance with infection prevention and control measures in primary and special schools.
“We will be seeking full clarity on the progress of the children’s vaccination programme and a fast-tracking of the booster programme for those aged 20-29, who work in crowded settings like schools.
“As Covid-19 is rampant in communities, we want an assurance that Government will do more to ensure that infection levels within primary schools are being closely monitored and taken seriously moving forward and that school principals can rely on public health support when they most need it.”
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said teachers have been raising concerns in recent days.
It is consulting through its internal union structures with elected representatives, and will be raising these concerns at the meeting.
Adam Harris of autism charity AsIAM said it was critically important that all involved cooperate to ensure a timely re-opening on in-school education on Thursday.
“We know the impact that school closures have had on children with additional needs – with many children suffering greatly as a result of not having access to appropriate education, this was captured very effectively by Dr Conor O’Mahony in his most recent report to Government as the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection,” Mr Harris said.
“The short term impact of this reality has been devastating on children and their families but the long-term impact of repeated closure periods is something which is even more concerning. It is unfathomable to think that people can shop in the January sales or meet a friend for a drink whilst children with additional needs remain home without access to their constitutional right to education,” he added.
The charity said many students with autism, and other young people with additional needs, are unable to learn remotely owing to cognitive differences, support requirements and the need for a calm, structured learning environment with highly skilled teachers and SNAs.
It has pointed to a government funded study carried out at DCU which found over 63pc of students with autism experienced a loss of key skills in vital areas such as self-regulation, independence and anxiety management, with an increase in young people experiencing school refusal upon re-opening.
Meanwhile, the number of healthcare staff currently unable to work due to Covid has not yet reached its peak, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO). Its general secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, said increasing numbers of patients being admitted to hospitals with Covid will translate into those at work getting infected themselves.
It is now estimated that there are 6,000 healthcare staff out on Covid-related leave, up from 3,800 before Christmas. “This hasn’t reached its maximum peak as yet by a long stretch,” said Ms Ní Sheaghdha.
In nursing and midwifery, it is estimated that more than 10pc of rosters cannot be filled at the moment due to Covid absences.
Ms Ní Sheaghdha described as “extremely worrying” the fact that on December 22, 200 nurses were “not available to populate ICU rosters”.