Back to school for the new normal

Schools return but Covid-19 challenge remains

Back to school for the new normal

It's back to school this week but the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic remain

As thousands of children return to schools this week the message from teachers, special needs assistants, secretaries and other school staff all over Donegal is clear - all workers must return to Covid-secure workplaces, and nothing less will be acceptable.

Both the Irish National Teachers organisation (INTO) and Fórsa, the largest trade union voice representing most of the other education sectors, have warned that they will not allow members or the pupils to be put in jeopardy.

Throughout the past few months school principals and staff have been working to protect the safety of all concerned but even with additional resources, many have felt class sizes will still pose a major obstacle in the days and weeks ahead.

A spokeswoman for the INTO said yesterday, (Wednesday), their priority was to get the schools open safely so they could stay open with staff and pupils safe as well.

She acknowledged overcrowding remained a problem and it was something they had raised in consultations with the Department of Education.

“There is an issue with overcrowding in schools in Donegal and we have asked for it to be addressed. Saying that, over the summer schools have gone above and beyond and principals have been working flat out to try to get ready for reopening.

“They have been doing what they can with the limited space and resources that they have available,” she said.

The INTO spokeswoman added pressure would be maintained and the INTO would be seeking a review of the guidance and measures that had been put in place preferably before the end of September in case additional funding was needed in the Budget.

She also said that they were pleased at the increase of substitute teachers through the supply channels in Donegal. This panel would enable gaps to be filled if a teacher was ill or out for any reason.

The spokeswoman also said if there were any outbreaks of Covid-19 the HSE would be contacted.

"We would ask that the HSE give very clear guidance to schools on what happens if there is an outbreak. We're not public health experts and it shouldn't be up to schools to make that decision," she said.

She added now it was a case of "wait and see" over the coming days and weeks to see how the new Covid-19 arrangements worked out.

"We have the largest class sizes in Europe and that doesn't make things easy. We've been calling for these to be reduced for a number of years.

“We will see how much of a challenge that poses now. It's a case of wait and see. It's an anxious time for principals, teachers, other staff and parents," she said.

Special needs
Meanwhile Fórsa has sought an urgent engagement with the education department over concerns that special needs assistants (SNAs) and school secretaries with underlying health conditions could be at unnecessary high risk once schools start to reopen this week.

The union is concerned that standard occupational health advice, and new guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), give insufficient protections against Covid-19 to classroom-based staff with underlying health problems including lung and respiratory conditions, heart disease, and some cancers.

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