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Teachers want review of health guidelines on schools remaining open


Stock photo: PA

Stock photo: PA

Stock photo: PA

If schools remain open while the country undergoes tougher Covid-19 restrictions, then action must be taken to protect the health of teachers and pupils, teacher unions warned last night.

Moving up to a higher level under government guidelines will have to mean a greater priority for schools in terms of testing, contact tracing, and availability of substitutes. More consideration will also have to be given to the possible option of partial reopening of schools, such as splitting classes to teach them on alternate days, they said.

"If Level 5 is introduced, the health experts have to be very clear. Is containment still working in schools and are school transmission rates still not an issue of concern?" asked David Geary, spokesman for the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.

Partial reopening would need to be looked at, as "a million students and their parents travelling every day - is that still acceptable?" he continued. Contact-tracing concerns are compounded when a principal of a school may first hear about a Covid case in school from a pupil or their parents rather than the HSE, he said.

And rapid testing of teachers must be an absolute priority as the teacher being absent from school is hugely disruptive for a large number of people. Teachers are still not being tested fast enough, he said.

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, said many teachers deemed high-risk remain "extremely stressed" about contracting Covid and many teachers are living with very high-risk loved ones, which makes them "really anxious and worried".

Many school buildings are unsatisfactory and difficult to keep safely ventilated in wintertime. Keeping windows open throughout the winter poses its own risks regarding colds and other ailments, he said.

"We need consistency, clarity and certainty. If schools remain open, we need a detailed rationale on the up-to-date evidence for operating safely.

"Teachers stepped up to the mark and prepared and reopened their schools. They are doing their best.

"They believe that the best place for them and their students to be is in school. But they want protection for the health of all - and they are not getting the consistency, clarity and certainty they need," he continued.

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Diarmaid de Paor, deputy general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, said they have been demanding a comprehensive review of the medical and related guidance for schools to ascertain whether it was safe for secondary schools to stay open.

"But it has not happened," he added.

There was "trepidation and fear" among teachers and students about the possibility of schools remaining open in the event of the nation going to Level 5.

Different rules appeared to be operating about what constitutes 'close contacts' when it comes to schools, he said.

Worries of teachers include a presumption that schools hit by Covid are expected to carry on no matter what, he added.

"We've consistently said we will be guided by medical advice. And we don't want schools to close. But we want them to stay open safely.

"We would like Nphet and the Department of Education to review the health guidelines for schools," he said.

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