Schools will “of course” open on Monday, despite the threat of industrial action by the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), the Taoiseach has pledged, as he declared that children must not become “victims of the virus into the future”.
Micheál Martin said the Government would engage with the trade unions around their concerns, especially over concerns about the safety of teachers in a coronavirus surge.
Among those anxieties are the issues around opening windows for ventilation in the bitter cold of winter. But while ASTI members have authorised strike action, the Taoiseach and the Health Minister say all the evidence is that schools are safe.
“The positivity rate in schools is 2pc, compared with 8pc in the community,” Stephen Donnelly said. The Taoiseach emphasised: “Schools are safe. They are safer than being outside of the schools. A lot can occur outside the schools and come back in.”
Asked if secondary schools would reopen after the midterm break because of the looming ASTI action, he replied: “Yes. Of course they will open on Monday.” He added: “The Minister for Education, Norma Foley, has had ongoing meetings with all unions. My sense is that there is a good working relationship between all the sides.”
There was a general desire to keep our schools open, he said, for the physical and mental wellbeing of students.
“To me, children being at school is essential for their mental wellbeing and their socialisation, and also in terms of their life chances subsequently.
“So this is a very important national objective for the country, that we look after this generation of children, and that they don't become victims of this virus into the future.”
However, in response to criticism from teaching unions, he added: “We will do everything we possibly can to support teachers, as well as school secretaries and everyone who works in that environment, to keep schools safe.
“There will be more regular engagement between public health at national level and the teaching unions, and weekly updates in terms of any issues.
“We can always improve, and we want to do that, working in partnership with everybody in education.”
Mr Martin said there would also be additional supports allocated to schools before the end of the year, to ensure they can meet infrastructure requirements. But he admitted the present “different type of learning” under Covid restrictions was not easy for anyone.
"The Government was not underestimating the impact. Friends of mine who are teachers, I keep in touch with them to just get a sense of what it's like, and they're coping. They want to be in school, they really get the importance of it for the children's development.”