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Teachers seek ‘morale boosting’ early Christmas holidays to reduce Covid risks

Union says early finish to term would be morale boost but Education Minister is not behind the proposal


Minister for Education Norma Foley

Minister for Education Norma Foley

Minister for Education Norma Foley

A TEACHERS’ union has called for a “morale-boosting” early Christmas break for schools after a nine-month struggle through Covid-19.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said it would also allow more time to staff and students to restrict their movements before meeting elderly or vulnerable relatives for festive gatherings.

Education Minister Norma Foley yesterday ruled out finishing the term on Friday, December 18, rather than the following Tuesday, unless public health advice changed.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Education Committee, she said it was “not our intention at this stage, at all, to extend the Christmas break” and that it was “important that schools finish out the term”.

But the TUI later said “serious consideration” should be given to the proposal.

It is the only one of the three teacher unions to issue a formal call for an early holiday, although this has been the subject of discussion within both the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI), where there are differing views.

The TUI said it would be a positive signal of the Department’s intention to protect the wellbeing of all in the school community, while also allowing a longer lead-in time before meeting vulnerable relatives, should public health advice allow such family gatherings.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said recent months had been “unprecedentedly difficult and draining for school communities”.

He said: “Thanks to the remarkable work of staff, schools have remained open through all levels of restrictions, including Level 5.”

But Mr Gillespie said stress and anxiety levels remained extremely high as a result of a range of worries and concerns that were not imaginable this time last year.

“This has been an extraordinarily intensive working period, and staff and students are far more fatigued than they would be during a ‘normal’ school year.

“In this regard, the short extension of the Christmas closure period that we are advocating would be a significant and much-needed boost to the morale of all concerned.”

Mr Gillespie said there was “much well-intentioned theorising about the concept of wellbeing in schools, but this would be a real, tangible action that could benefit all in the school community”.

“It could also prove to be a ‘stitch in time’ measure that helps prevent longer absences due to burnout and exhaustion later in the school year.”

Earlier, ASTI president Ann Piggott said there were arguments on both sides of any proposal to close early for Christmas.

She said the matter had been raised within the Principals’ and Deputy Principals’ Committee of the ASTI.

“They have been working incessantly since early last year to get schools ready to keep them open, and I do want to thank them and their hard work has to be acknowledged.

Speaking on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show, Ms Piggott said the main argument in favour of the idea was a medical argument.

“There are grandparents and parents around this country who want to see extended family over Christmas. If children finish school earlier, it would actually mean that people can be safer.

“They wouldn’t be gathering with hundreds of others in a closed setting. If they were to exhibit symptoms, they would come before Christmas Day, so people could actually feel safe in knowing that they could spend time with their grandchildren who might not be sick; who might not be carrying the virus. That would be the main medical argument.”

She said when students finish school before Christmas, they would be at home with their families “and then seven days later I think it might be safe enough for their grandparents to see them and meet them, and that’s what everybody in the country wants”.

But she cautioned that it needed “widespread consultation with parents, student bodies, the second-level student body and all stakeholders to see if this is a possibility and to see how the Class of 2021 will not be disadvantaged by this”.

Labour Education spokesperson Aodhán Ó’Riordáin raised the issue of an early closure with Ms Foley at the Oireachtas Education Committee.

Mr Ó’Riordáin pointed to the huge amount of work that had been, and was being, done in schools and said an argument may be made for an earlier break.

The minister acknowledged the work that was being done by all involved, but said she was also very mindful that the calendar had been agreed with parents and that students were much better served when they were in school.

“I appreciate the goodwill with which you raised the suggestion, but at this point in time I will follow public health advice that things are operating within schools and, at this point, that is where I would stand in relation to that.”

Ms Foley returned to the topic in a subsequent exchange and said “from our point of view, for all the reasons previously outlined, it is not our intention at this stage at all to extend the Christmas break”.

She said she was very mindful of the importance of children being in school. “That is something we have articulated every step of the way, even at Level 5, to ensure schools open,” she said. adding that “It is important that schools would finish out the term in that respect.”

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