Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 July 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Impact of Covid-19: Education – Return to School and School Transport
We are joined this afternoon by representatives from the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, and the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. I would like to welcome, from the TUI, Mr. John MacGabhann, general secretary, and Mr. Martin Marjoram, president. I also welcome Mr. Kieran Christie, general secretary, and Ms Deirdre MacDonald, president, from the ASTI. I also welcome Mr. John Boyle, general secretary, and Ms Mary Magner, president, from the INTO.
I wish to advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
We expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour but witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times, in accordance with the witness protocol.
Can we have Mr. MacGabhann's opening remarks? I would ask all our guests to limit their opening statements to five minutes because their statements have been circulated in advance, as have submissions from other unions, interested groups and bodies that we were not able to accommodate today because of the limitations on time and space available to us.
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I thank the Chair and members of the committee. The Teachers Union of Ireland is pleased to have this opportunity to discuss with the special committee the question of effecting a safe return to school as early as possible for the greatest possible number of students. We would also, in due course, welcome an opportunity to discuss with the committee these issues as they relate to further and higher education.
We are conscious of the fact that, notwithstanding the significant efforts made to ensure continuity and quality of service in an online environment, nothing can match or satisfactorily replace the live setting of a classroom.
Therefore, it is our ambition to have a return to those classrooms as soon as possible. Until yesterday, we lacked clear direction about social distancing, and this lack impeded progress. The architecture of schools is predicated on congregating students, precisely what the current crisis demands that we avoid. Therefore some defined metric regarding social distancing was needed and, as of yesterday, we have that metric and we can now plan accordingly.
The TUI is also concerned that some of the public discourse is peddling a myth that the virus is not transmitted by children. While there is evidence that young children are less susceptible to the virus than other cohorts of the population, it is also the case that older students have been shown both to contract and to transmit the virus. Indeed, in a post-primary context the word "child" itself is problematic. To consider students from their mid-teens on as children is, in this context, a mistake. They are young adults and therefore carry with them, as do other adults, the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
As teachers our members have a duty of care to their students. As a teachers’ trade union, we also owe a duty of care to our members. In both cases that duty consists first and foremost of seeking to safeguard their health. If Government wants to approach the reopening of schools with realism and to protect the safety of all concerned, it must provide some additional resourcing. For example, the budget available to schools for cleaning is wholly inadequate, and that is even in a pre-Covid context. Proper cleaning is essential and, therefore, so also is a proper budget for cleaning. Principal teachers need support. Documentation is replete with references to "the school": the school will do this and the school will do that. The school does nothing. People do. Specifically, in the context of preparation for reopening, it is assumed that the principal teacher will do everything. Principal teachers need support, and quickly.
A very significant adjustment will be required in terms of where and how to accommodate students. If a class of 30 sixth year students, for example, can be accommodated only by using two classrooms simultaneously, the requisite technology for both live and remote delivery must be in place. There must also be a presiding teacher in each room. The TUI has suggested that to meet the need for additional staff, students in the second year of the professional masters of education programme be fast tracked into paid teaching. This has happened in respect of other professions.
There are also students and teachers who will not yet be able to return. An indeterminate proportion of students and teachers will not be able safely to return because of underlying health conditions or because they are otherwise in high-risk categories. Provision will have to be made for both cohorts. There are hard-to-reach students and it is common knowledge that this cohort has not been able to engage or simply has not engaged with the online delivery of classes. These hard-to-reach students often suffer multiple disadvantage. It must be a priority of the system to have these students re-engage. Failure to achieve this will result in deficits that will haunt many of them through the entirety of their lives. Merely reopening schools will not of itself suffice for this cohort. A structured, targeted programme of interventions will be needed.
Another cohort of students for whom the period of school closure has presented a very particular challenge is students with special educational needs. For many of them, the absence of the social milieu of the school has been extremely disruptive and confusing. Customised interventions and supports will be required to re-establish the connections that have been severed. There may also be a need for atypical timetables and we will have to plan for the possibility of a partial return or a staggered return. Consideration may have to be given to prioritising certain groups within the school community, perhaps those going into sixth year, first years, or students with special educational needs or those who suffer the most acute disadvantage.
A further consequence of the move from on-site to online teaching and learning is that certain elements of the curriculum have not been and cannot for the foreseeable future be completed. Especially affected have been practical subjects. It would seem harsh, even at this remove, to expect students to face examinations next year that assume completion of syllabi. Therefore, adjustments will have to be made and they are probably best made by using the assessment instruments rather than by specific curtailment of syllabi.
In regard to school transport, while it may be logistically difficult to arrange for students to be transported to school, it is vital that it be done as far as it can be done.
For example, if a student who already suffers disadvantage does not have access to school transport, there is not the slightest chance that he or she will be able to re-engage. Moreover, in rural areas where there is often deep seated and intergenerational socioeconomic disadvantage few, if any, alternatives exist.
Mr. John MacGabhann:
In conclusion, to come back to the matter of safety, the TUI has made it clear that we will operate in accordance with the advice of the public health authorities but we will not put our students, their families, their communities or our members at risk. We do not have magical immunity either for teachers or students. They all must have confidence that their safety is being protected. We realise the importance to families, businesses and the broader community of reopening schools. We will play our part and do what we must do. What we need now are practical solutions to practical problems. We welcome the advice that issued yesterday and we look forward with relish to the engagement that must ensue.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. I want to make clear that the objective of the ASTI is the full reopening of schools as soon as possible. While enormous efforts have been made by teachers and students by way of remote engagement since the school closures in March and notwithstanding the digital divide and other issues that have frustrated the efforts of all concerned, it is clear that nothing can replace the vital interactions that take place in classrooms. However, the reopening must be done in a manner that is safe and enjoys the confidence of all concerned.
Our submission outlines the issues regarding the challenges for reopening schools and the procedures that will need to be put in place. These include ensuring the health, safety and well-being of students, teachers and other school personnel; adjusting the physical infrastructure to maintain social distancing; implementing the return to work safely protocol and ensuring compliance with it; attending to the needs of vulnerable members of the school community; dealing with the enormity of the initiative overload burden placed on schools in recent years and rebalancing the inspection process in schools so that these do not constitute a barrier to an efficient school reopening and the making up for lost time; and addressing the impact on students, teaching and learning and the challenges of potential staggered attendance that may still be necessary for a time.
In relation to a blended learning approach, a raft of issues will have to be addressed regarding remote teaching and digital literacy skills. We need to address, as a matter of urgent priority, the equity issues that were thrown into the limelight in a stark manner after the school closures in March. Students with special and additional educational needs have suffered enormously during this period. Their needs will have to be fully addressed.
A successful reopening of schools will be predicated on achieving the confidence of teachers, students and parents in the process. In England, attendance rates have been poor from among those who have been entitled to return to school, purely because parents are not convinced that it is safe to do so. The ASTI takes a wider view but, as a trade union, we must pay particular attention to the interests of our members. Teachers, like all workers, must return to Covid-19 secure workplaces. Nothing less will be acceptable.
The report to Government by the Minister for Education and Skills on 12 June caused considerable consternation amongst our members, to put it mildly. It stated: "A differentiated approach to physical distancing in schools versus requirements for other parts of society or business could be considered appropriate and reasonable when the particular nature of the school environment is considered". An inferior approach to physical distancing in schools from that which pertains in wider society or any deviation from the health advice available from NPHET or the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, would be unacceptable. We have been heartened that the interim advice issued by the HPSC and acted upon by the Department of Education and Skills regarding the operation of summer programmes being provided in schools includes a social distancing regime for staff and students.
The ASTI has a significant number of members with underlying conditions or living with others who fall into similar categories. They worry if they will be Covid-19 secure working in a classroom with 30 students with no personal protective equipment and with weak social distancing or none. Members are sceptical that this would be safe. In England, clinically vulnerable individuals, including education staff, are advised not to work outside the home. Staff in this position should be similarly advised here.
The developing science relating to the virus seems to suggest that children under the age of ten probably pose no threat in terms of transmission of the disease. However, all students in second-level schools are over 12 years of age and several of the senior students will be over 18. The science on this issue appears inconclusive. We believe that a blended learning model of some sort will continue to be needed and that phasing of the return to school may be necessary. As our classrooms are among the most overcrowded in OECD countries, it seems to us that no matter how creative schools are in using their available rooms and facilities, many will not be able to accommodate everyone on a full-time basis. Several staff members and students may still have to work or study outside of the classroom because of their vulnerabilities. Enormous difficulties will have to be overcome in the management of practical classes such as woodwork, metalwork, art, physical education, music and home economics. Similarly, it will be challenging to manage the cleaning requirements that will be needed between classes.
These tasks will be extremely difficult but not insurmountable. The ASTI will play a constructive role. We will engage with the Department of Education and Skills and all other relevant stakeholders to ensure a safe reopening of schools to the greatest extent possible. Only an agreed set of protocols that enjoys the trust and confidence of all stakeholders will secure that objective.
Mr. John Boyle:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting the INTO to appear on this important issue. Tá Mary Magner, ár n-uachtarán, in éineacht liom. Covid-19 has had an unprecedented and devastating effect on Irish society, one from which the country may take years to recover. The repercussions will have the greatest impact on the vulnerable. Education is a key sector that can play a leading role in addressing the negative consequences.
The reopening of schools will be an enormous challenge but our members are unequivocally up for that challenge. They are facing up to it with the expectation that their views will be taken into account and their concerns fully addressed by the Government in a timely manner. Priority must be given to the safety and physical and mental health and well-being of staff, pupils and parents in primary schools through minimising the risk of the introduction of Covid-19 into the school community and, if it does get in, properly managing the risk of a spread of infection.
Children’s learning and development, including their well-being, must be supported by schools. Schools must have access to the relevant supports from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. Those services, in turn,must be ramped up and their capacity increased to cope with the needs of school communities.
A collaborative approach to developing and implementing procedures and protocols at national level is essential. Although local schools will have to adapt protocols for their particular circumstances, individual schools cannot be asked to develop their own guidance. Engagement with stakeholders is ongoing and it is imperative that it moves at a faster pace.
In order to have a full reopening of schools, there must be a comprehensive level of staffing, including substitution for all absences. That has not been available since the recession. All absences must be covered. Supports to schools must ensure that no class needs to be split among other teachers and classes. If that were to be the case, the whole system would fall down. A very good pilot scheme involving substitute supply panels in six areas is being run this year. This scheme must be extended nationwide to ensure that teachers are readily available to cover their colleagues' absences.
Adequate resources must be allocated to schools to allow them to implement the comprehensive health and safety measures they require to operate safely. Such resources include additional budgets for cleaning staff, equipment and sanitising products. Account also must be taken of the need for schools to purchase additional educational resources if children are to have their own materials. Parents must not be asked to pay for those resources.
It is something of a national embarrassment that we have the largest primary school class sizes in the eurozone. Many of our primary school classrooms are overcrowded, with many having more than 30 children. Our European neighbours have an average of approximately 20 students per class. This factor really matters when it comes to applying social distancing. It is crucial that the new Government delivers on its commitment to address the matter. We need assurances that no school will be penalised if the number of children in attendance on 30 September is below the appointment and retention figure as a result of absences due to Covid-19 or other illness.
We will have to accommodate a changed environment from September. This must be taken into account by the inspectorate, the National Council for Special Education and other sections and agencies within the Department. It will be necessary for inspections and initiatives other than those aimed at contributing to the school's efforts to maintain the health and well-being of the pupils and school community to be put aside for the duration of the crisis. We welcome the announcement that there will be no new self-evaluation next year.
In advance of opening, there must be a communication strategy led centrally by the Department. This must include a media campaign to ensure buy-in from the whole school community. Clear advice and guidance will have to be given to students, including smaller children, their parents and everyone in the community. There will be changed expectations of schools, for example, teaching all parts of the curriculum or extra-curricular activities may not be covered, initially at least. This has to be spelled out to avoid misunderstanding.
School leaders will need particular supports. They have played a blinder so far. Given that we have teaching principals in half our schools, they will need additional leadership days to get away from the classroom in the initial period so that they can ensure the school is safe. We will also need suspension of the unnecessary paperwork during the Covid-19 crisis.
Staff and students, who will be hopefully returning on a full-time basis, must be assured by Government that when the go back to learning and teaching, every precaution and practical step has been taken to protect them from Covid-19. They will need certainty that parents will not congregate, as they do usually, at a school. I am sorry that this has to happen but we must ensure people are not congregating and that an unambiguous message is sent out that this cannot happen. In the event that any school does not re-open fully or has to close due to a breakout, we need extra facilities for information and communications technology. We have low investment in computers and technology in the primary sector. Teachers will not be able to simultaneously teach 20 or 30 children in their class and teach the children who are vulnerable at home at the same time. There must be extra staffing for that.
Finally, careful thorough and properly-funded preparations must be made at pace in the coming weeks. We will certainly work closely with the Department. We have to take into consideration the reality of the long years of under-investment in the primary sector. We can overcome this with the resources. We are determined to ensure that everyone in the school community remains safe from late August and September onwards.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na ceardchumainn go léir as a bheith linn. I wish to put on the record of the committee something I spoke about in the Dáil last week. In many respects special needs assistants and other school staff believe that the efforts they have made during this crisis have not been adequately recognised. They have been shown considerable disrespect by the Department in terms of communications on issues relating to pay, for example. I am not putting that on any of the union representatives present. I know that they and their members have a good working relationship with them. For the purposes of the committee, I know they are disappointed that they have not been included today. I urge the committee to include them in any future hearings. I imagine this issue will arise again and we will be discussing it further.
This is not the biggest issue in the news each day but it is fair to say that for well over 1 million people this is among the most important issues they face. For the almost 1 million school children and parents and the tens of thousands of teachers and schools staff this is an issue they think about every day. They are trying to imagine what it will be like in September. It has been difficult for everyone. I know that for many children it has been extremely difficult as it has for many parents too. They are looking at the autumn and trying to imagine what it will be like if the child is only in school one day, two days or three days per week. Having said all that, I am of the view that it need not work like this.
Some people may seek division on this issue but, in my view, it is the honest objective of everyone involved in the sector to ensure a full and safe return to education as soon as possible. Is it our guests' objective to deliver a full return to education in the normal way as soon as possible and when will that be possible?
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I will not speak for the other unions but we have been absolutely foursquare about this from the outset. We want our students back in school and our members wish to be back in school. We regard everything that has happened to date as necessary in the circumstances but not by any means as good as what would otherwise be available. I cannot answer truthfully and fairly the question as to when this will happen. We are engaged and will continue to engage with the Department and the other partners to ensure that it can happen at the earliest possible time. As the Deputy will appreciate, however, and as he acknowledged, this has to be done in a manner that guarantees safety for children, students in the case of second level schools, their parents and families, the broader community and, we say without apology, our members. All I can say is that the effort will not be lacking, from us or any other party.
Mr. John Boyle:
In our case, we received an additional document for our schools, namely, a Covid-19 draft response plan. We have the interim guidance or recommendations from the public health experts but we also have an additional plan that came about because of very intensive work carried out by management, the principals' group and us, the INTO. If that plan is to come to fruition for September, the pace of engagement will have to increase. Now that we have the interim health guidance, it is obvious that primary will be treated somewhat differently from post-primary. It is obvious that for classes up to second class, the public health experts believe that social distancing will not be as achievable. We have a particular issue with the older classes, from third to sixth class, when it comes to the large, or super-size as I call them, classes. No matter what way the maths is done, it will be very difficult to fit 35 or 36 children into an 80 sq. m room, not to mention some of the smaller, older classrooms.
The advice may change over the summer, and international comparisons are being carried out with primary schools that have opened in countries where the curve was flattened earlier than in our case. It will be kept under review. It is our view that as we enter August, we will work tirelessly, even during our office closure - and I will not be taking any holidays - to ensure we can get this over the line. The key point from the very beginning from our perspective has been that we are guided by public health advice from Irish experts. We have had great trust in them as a country.
When it comes to the 1 million people the Deputy refers to, almost 600,000 of whom are returning to primary school, the key point for them is that if the medical experts determine that the measures and protections are in place, we will all be back, but I have serious reservations about what will happen after we go back. The committee might come to this issue later. It is fine to get the schools reopened but the question is whether we can keep them open in circumstances where teachers are absent, and mandated as such because they have symptoms, and where the Department will not fund substitute teachers to cover their absence. That would ruin the theory behind pods and bubbles. We will not be able to have classes split willy-nilly throughout schools.
I will group my remaining questions and ask that all three of our guests respond to them accordingly. It seems that the process undertaken by the Department began too late.
Documentation produced in recent weeks has answered some of the questions, but without the Department having provided guidance to them directly, schools were left in a significant vacuum and had to use their initiative to prepare. Are the witnesses satisfied with the manner in which the Department communicated with schools and union members?
Another key issue concerns the costs of hygiene and cleaning. Some estimates suggest a cost €25 million but I imagine it could be more, considering the costs of factors such as refuse. How much do the witnesses believe schools will need to ensure costs are not passed on to parents?
Another key issue about which I am concerned is that there are many children who have, despite the best efforts of teachers and staff, fallen significantly behind. I am aware that teachers have made great efforts. As a parent, I thank the teaching staff of Gaelscoil an Teaghlaigh Naofa. I am sure there are many other schools in which considerable efforts were made. There are, however, many children who will have fallen behind enormously despite schools' best efforts. How do the witnesses envisage this being tackled? Is there a role for home–school liaison activity in this regard? What do we need to do to bridge the gap that will have opened up? Could all three speakers address those questions briefly? There are about two minutes remaining.
To go back to my first question, the objective of everybody in education should be a full return to school as soon as it is possible and safe. This is the optimal way to educate children. I am sure the staff believe this also. We need to reach this criterion or threshold.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the great work that was done remotely by many teachers throughout the country since the closures. It is pleasing that he has acknowledged that.
The Deputy originally asked two questions and I stitched into my statement that it is the objective of the ASTI to have full reopening as soon as possible, provided it is done safely. Answering the second part of the Deputy's question is tougher because it is not possible for me to predict when this will take place. There are too many variables of which we are not in control. The key variable is obviously the social distancing regime. We received medical advice yesterday. The position on what is possible might deteriorate or improve as the summer progresses, but we do not know. Social distancing is the key variable in ensuring that we get pupils back to school. Our view is that the advice that came out yesterday is such that many schools will not be fit to open on a full-time basis for all students. They might be open but they may be open on a restricted basis. That is a simple reality because of the sizes of the schools and the number of pupils who can safely be put into a classroom.
I agree with the Deputy that there is extreme urgency in respect of guidelines being issued to schools and planning. Perhaps there was time that might have been used better but we were waiting for the medical advice to come through. Without that advice, nobody was sure what was being planned. In that context, there is definitely a lot of work to be done in the coming weeks to give guidance to school leaders, teachers, parents and all the other stakeholders in schools.
With regard to the Deputy's question on costs, there is no doubt that the cleaning regime alone, in addition to several other aspects that arise from it, will impose an enormous burden of cost on the system. It will have to be borne centrally because schools do not have the money to fund the regime. Certainly, we share the Deputy's view that there should be no leaning on the already overburdened parents to fund that.
I am afraid I am out of time. If the issues I have raised come up again, the other two speakers might address them. I am sure I can pick this up with the unions at a later stage. I thank the witnesses.
We can ask for a written response to any questions that have not been answered. If the Deputy needs a written response, he might follow up with the clerk to the committee. I am due ten minutes but I will not take them because I am in the Chair. If any Member who has five minutes wants a bit of latitude, he or she should signal it to me in advance and I will try my best. The next speaker is Teachta O'Dowd, who has five minutes.
That is very generous of the Acting Chairman. I welcome the teaching unions. They are doing a fantastic job and there is a very difficult task ahead. Every school has a plan and every school is different. Who signs off on those plans? How are productivity and needs verified?
A small school in County Louth, Rampark national school, will lose two teachers this year. Large schools in Drogheda have over 1,200 or 1,300 students. They will need a lot more staff to be able to manage and ensure systems are adhered to and to guarantee that if somebody needs to be looked after, he or she will be. I worked in a school with 1,200 pupils, and anyone who stood in their way at 4 p.m. might not last too long. Large numbers of people will have to be controlled and kept distant from each other. Will staggered hours be required? By that I mean will only some pupils go to school at 9 a.m. and others later so that the whole school is not occupied by all of the students at one time?
Students in post-primary schools often move around from one subject class to another. Should pupils stay in one room for as much of the time as possible for subjects like languages, maths and so on? How will practical rooms like science and technology laboratories, which are smaller and cannot accommodate social distancing, be dealt with?
Teachers, students and parents face a major task. The key message from the unions today is that they are prepared to work with everybody. The Government is prepared to work with them. Parents are also key. To be successful in teaching is very difficult at the best of times, but the task facing the unions is mammoth. I would be happy to hear what the witnesses have to say in response to my questions.
Ms Mary Magner:
I thank Deputy O'Dowd, who has reiterated my concerns as a principal of a school with 320 pupils in Blarney, north Cork. I am also concerned about how things will be managed in a practical sense in schools. While we welcome the interim recommendations, which will inform the Department's guidance to us, we need swift delivery of that guidance. I acknowledge that the Deputy was very much at the coalface of what I have to deal with daily in schools and the practicalities of delivering the recommendations in our schools. These recommendations have raised many questions, despite giving us some answers.
Teachers and principals are, naturally, anxious. As a school principal, I do not wish to be in a position to have to send children home because I am not able to get a substitute for a teacher who is sick. The goal of the INTO and primary school teachers is a full return to our schools and we are quite willing to work with the Department in that regard. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of all the work that has been done behind the scenes for teachers and principals. She acknowledged that she got a sense of exhaustion from them and encouraged them to take as much of a break as they possibly could before dealing with the practicalities of returning to schools. Putting these recommendations into practice is a major concern for me as a school principal.
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for acknowledging the fantastic job done by teachers. It is also worth mentioning work done by the principals and deputy principals. A great deal of the Deputy's question also focused on the planning that must be done at local school level. What we have is an advance from where we were on foot of the publication of the public health advice. We have been promised what is absolutely vital now, which is a collaborative and collegiate process whereby the unions and all the other stakeholders can take that public health advice and see what is going to be involved in its implementation.
The Deputy is entirely right to focus on the fact that this is going to vary across different schools. The architecture of different schools, how many students are in them, what subjects are offered and so forth all will feed into differentiated approaches. The key point, and the Deputy touched on this as well, is the need for additional resources. We are definitely going to need additional staff and more supports for our principals and deputy principals.
In addition, if classes have to be separated and if there is any element of blended learning - there will be and must be some for those who are vulnerable and those who have underlying health conditions - that must be planned for. We are in the happy position, however, of at least not being in the position we were in March with no time but it is a limited time. As it is only eight weeks, we must be really focused and we have to get some commitments concerning the resources that will be involved in implementing this process correctly and having a proper and safe return.
I welcome and acknowledge the three leaders of the teachers' organisations and unions. As my colleagues have said, I also acknowledge the deeply conscientious role that teachers in all strata of our school system have shouldered in recent months. It strikes me, as I hear them speaking, that it would help to imbue confidence if there was a level playing field. It can been seen how few of us there are here in the Dáil Chamber so I imagine, if it is expected that teachers will go back to school with some kind of reduced physical distancing, that it would help them to see a Dáil Chamber in September that was kind of half full on the basis of the requirements, as opposed to the maximum of 20 Deputies allowed to be here now. Our witnesses might have seen the Dáil assemble in the National Convention Centre. I made the point the other day that the venue seats 2,000 people but managed to accommodate only 160 Deputies with physical distancing requirements, and we kind of filled the venue. I completely get the challenges, therefore, that teachers are facing.
I have a couple of questions I will run through quickly. Do the witnesses favour temperature testing? If so and if that type of testing was favoured in particular circumstances, who would carry that out or has consideration been given to that issue? One of the contributors mentioned proper budgets for cleaning. What kind of budgets are we talking about in that regard? It was also remarked that principal teachers needed additional supports. Will the witnesses outline what additional supports they might have in mind?
The witnesses also referred to the need for provision to be made for teachers who cannot return to work because of underlying conditions or similar circumstances. What provisions do the witnesses envisage as being required in those circumstances? In light of the comments made some weeks ago by Professor Luke O'Neill about no-nos in the context of the transmission of Covid-19, including shouting and boisterous behaviour, how would the witnesses envisage playgrounds being supervised, particularly at primary school level? Have the witnesses' organisations thought about, or discussed with the Department, the oversight of the required health and cleansing measures? Has that been discussed? Is that a responsibility that falls on the principals or the boards of management, or is it departmental?
Turning to implementing the Return to Work Protocols, did that start before schools shut in the last week? The witnesses mentioned those teachers who may not be able to return to work. Do the witnesses have an idea as to what proportion of teachers might not be able to return to work because of legitimate underlying conditions?
I will ask one more question before inviting the witnesses to respond. I may have time after that for a follow-up question. Based on the figures we have so far, it seems there may be schools in some parts of the country that do not have to do anything because, as Mr. Boyle mentioned, the curve has been flattened to such an extent in those areas. Do the witnesses envisage that some schools will not have to do anything? I have asked a lot of questions and I know the witnesses will not get through them all, but I would be grateful if they could come back on some of them.
Mr. John Boyle:
Deputy Lahart will be very familiar with the largest school in Ireland, where I was principal until last year. There are particular logistical difficulties for that school, with 1,600 children, 150 staff and God knows how many parents arriving there every morning. That is a case where there will have to be a staggered opening, particularly initially. It will not be possible to have a safe reopening on 1 September for a school of that size if all of those people turn up at the gate at the same time. Things will be different this year.
The Deputy asked about temperature testing. The guidance indicates that for very young children, it would not be worthwhile to do it because, on certain days in the winter, from the time they leave home until they get to school, their temperature could have gone up before suddenly falling back again. Any such measures will have to be done at entry. The key point in the guidance is: if in doubt, stay out. Parents will have to make sure that if their child is not feeling well or has any sign of a symptom, he or she does not come into school. Equally, staff will have to take the same approach.
Support for principals is a particularly big issue for us. With nearly half our schools having small numbers of teachers and teaching principals, we do not believe, in the early days of the school year, that a teaching principal will be able to give full consideration to his or her class for the five hours of the days, plus playground duty, and also be able to manage the safe opening of the school. We will have to get extra release days for those principals. We have been asking for a day per week for a long time and we are nearly there in some schools. The total cost of giving a day a week is €7 million. We do not necessarily need to have that in place immediately to deal with Covid but we will need a lot of days in September. We certainly can do the maths on that and get back to the Deputy.
When it comes to playground supervision and all the resources relating to the national return to work protocol, it is all about time. For example, the requirement for children to sanitise their hands will have to be done under supervision. How does one supervise the children coming in the door when half of the class have already gone up the stairs to their classroom? Equally, how can a teacher carry out the role of lead worker representative in a school if he or she is teaching all day? In the case of teaching principals and even administrative principals, they will be so focused on health and safety that there will have to be extra help and resources provided. We can get all of that costed.
Deputies O'Dowd and Lahart asked about how there will be verification of how individual schools are adapting to the new normal. The Health and Safety Authority will have a role to play in that. We hope the schools inspectorate, even though its members might not be health experts, can guide and advise schools in this regard. We are glad that they have said they will do so. However, there also will have to be HSA inspections. If they are happening in every other workplace, why should they not be done in schools? Our members, including teachers, special needs assistants, secretaries and caretakers, are as entitled to a safe workplace as every other worker.
Finally, there are teachers who are really anxious at the moment because they have underlying health conditions. There are many young female teachers who are pregnant and who are not clear as to whether they will be in jeopardy if they come back in September. The advice definitely will have to be clearer for those categories of school staff. At the moment, the guidance talks about, in the context of the ordinary office workplace, what should be done for people in the very high-risk category. However, those people in offices, who are, no doubt, doing great work, do not have to go into a class with 30 children and meet up to 30 parents in the day. These are things that must be clarified as soon as possible. If school staff cannot come back for those sorts of reasons, the principal and the board will need time to recruit replacements.
All three of the witnesses mentioned that a proportion of their members, for legitimate reasons of having underlying conditions, may have a difficulty in returning to the classroom. Can each of the witnesses put a figure or percentage on that for their union?
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I do not think any of us is in a position at the moment to provide a percentage but that will become apparent when return to work forms are completed. There is an issue with the timing of that. If those forms are completed only towards the latter end of the process of preparation for return - I think a three-day period is allowed - that will not allow a school sufficient time to make provisions in the event that one or more members of staff are legitimately in the position where they cannot return safely to school.
We are in touch with the teacher unions in the UK and they have experienced in excess of 20% of their teaching force being in vulnerable categories. I do not want to extrapolate from that about the Irish teaching force because the age profile of teaching forces varies from one jurisdiction to another. When we say that provision has to be made for those people, we are saying they will continue to work. We are not asking that they not work but that they be allowed circumstances and accommodations that enable them to work safely. We will have students in exactly the same boat who, due to serious underlying conditions, will not be able to return to the classroom. They, too, will have to work from home and we have to be enabled to make the necessary contact with them. I am sorry I cannot be more definitive but that is the best I can do, indicatively.
I thank the speakers and the organisations represented here for the work they have done over recent months in very difficult times. It has been hugely challenging for teachers. They have worked very hard, many of them from home, to keep in contact with their students and continue to provide assistance and guidance to them. I welcome in particular Mary Magner, who is a principal in Blarney in my constituency of Cork North-Central, and I wish her well in her role as president of the INTO. The INTO is in safe hands with her as president.
I wish to follow up on the issue of vulnerable teachers who may find it necessary to stay out. Can we set up a process to deal with that at a very early stage? Schools will have to plan for that issue, and I imagine we would need to have that very much in place by the third or fourth week in August rather than trying to deal with it in September. I presume there is engagement with the Department at this stage regarding how this issue is to be managed, in particular if there is a teacher who is able to work from home and at the same time work with the school. Has there been engagement with the Department on that?
There is a second issue I wish to touch on. One of the speakers stated there has to be buy-in and I fully agree with that. What do people feel is the biggest challenge to that buy-in? Where so they see the major hurdles we have to cross in dealing with that buy-in?
The final issue relates to leaving certificate students. I asked this question this morning in another session. They have lost out on three or four months of the two-year leaving certificate course. What additional mechanisms and supports can be put in place for those starting their final year towards the leaving certificate on 1 September? What do the witnesses think should be planned to deal with that issue?
Ms Deirdre MacDonald:
I wish to address a couple of issues that have come up in the contributions of the last number of speakers. The first relates to health advice. We do not crystal ball-gaze and we are not medical experts. We are educationalists and we will stick by whatever advice is given to us by the medical experts, namely, NPHET and the HPSC.
The Deputy spoke of vulnerable teachers, and indeed vulnerable students, but I am going to speak from the perspective of the vulnerable teachers. In health and safety we already have what is called "reasonable accommodation". That concept needs to be extended to include Covid-related illness and accommodation to that. Teachers will want to work, be it from home or in whatever capacity; they will want to do it. In an allied area, in recent years sick leave has been cut dramatically so we need to be cognisant of this issue to allay the fears and stop the anxieties. We hear constantly about the importance of mental health. If we can plan in advance and get these issues dealt with, we will save everybody, that is, the management and, most importantly, the individuals the anxiety in this regard.
Deputy Burke asked about the current fifth years, that is, the students going into sixth year. They are indeed a unique group facing unique problems; their education has been grossly interrupted. We need to work with the State Examinations Commission to ensure that the break in their education can be accommodated. That is best done through the assessment tool, as some of my colleagues here have mentioned, as well as taking account of both the written examinations and of the subjects with practical elements. We need to be inclusive in the assessment tools but to work with the State Examinations Commission in doing that and to do it early on. We ask that the fears of the students and their teachers be allayed as soon as possible.
Mr. John Boyle:
Ms McDonald was speaking about vulnerable people and we are really concerned about the staff in this instance. The rate of sick leave for teachers is very low across the public service. As mentioned earlier, they often drag themselves in when there is no way that they should be in. Classrooms can be a great place for the spread of infection, especially in the younger classes with the infants and so on because they are not able to manage it. We did lose those days of cover for what was known as self-certified illness. If a teacher develops a symptom on a Sunday evening and is mandated not to go in to work because of that they cannot be penalised in Covid territory. There is a Covid leave at the moment and that leave is going to have to continue in those cases.
That is the first aspect of it but the difficulty for the school under the current arrangements, which have been in place for the past seven or eight years, is that a school does not get cover for that teacher. Unless this is resolved, there is a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to Covid because we cannot have a State mandating people to stay at home but refusing to cover for them when they are absent. The effects of that, as I said earlier, would be classes split and we certainly will not countenance that happening.
In addition, when it comes to dealing with the substitution issue, I mentioned the concept of the supply panels earlier and this is something that could easily work in the post-primary sector as well. We have a pilot up and running and if it was expanded and if ten schools in an area around Bantry or Banteer or anywhere else knew there were a couple of teachers available for certain that they could ring and who were happy to do that substitution, it would certainly help to alleviate the pressure.
On the question of buy-in, Irish society has done well since the beginning of March in buying in and people were highly compliant with all those restrictions. There was a clamour at the beginning to close schools, there has been a clamour now for a number of months to get them reopened, but we cannot reopen them without buy-in from all stakeholders. When the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern, made a decision that parents would not be congregating on school facilities until this virus was condemned to the dustbin of history in her country, everybody bought into that. People did not go beyond those school gates. This is not something that we as a union would ever have thought we would be asking for, because we really value the input of parents in primary education.
With regard to the teaching force itself, we cannot have teachers, like they used to, coming to school when they are ill. If they are ill, they must stay at home, and in that instance we will get buy-in. It is not in our nature to stay out, but if we are to open schools and keep them open, and I am more worried at this stage about keeping them open, we are going to have to get that buy-in from society generally.
Employers are going to have to give a bit of slack to a parent who is called to a school because his or her child had to self-isolate. We cannot have a situation where an employer refuses to allow the parent to go and collect the child and as a result that child is left in the school with further risk of the spread of infection.
Buy-in is going to have to be across the board. Buy-in also costs money. We hope the Department buys in to those asks about the extra resources in the system.
I welcome the three members of the unions here today. I spent 15 years as a second level teacher and I have spoken to many teachers and principals over recent weeks about their concerns and anxieties in the lead-up to a September return. The big elephant in the room is pupil-teacher ratios. Anybody involved with education in their professional life will acknowledge that we have always strived to reduce pupil-teacher ratios to an adequate level. This crisis has highlighted that those attempts have been a dismal failure. It needs to be acknowledged that had we been more successful in tackling the high pupil-teacher ratios we have, then this difficulty in returning in September might not be the big issue it is going to become.
I have spoken to six principals over the past two days, and somebody mentioned earlier that one size does not fit all in terms of school buildings and what is there. One principal described the difficulties they have with the narrowness of the corridors. Another principal discussed the issues they have with the size of the rooms themselves. Another discussed their lack of sheltered open space if the weather is poor and children need to go outside and play. That is going to be another challenge ahead. That said, it is heartening to see with the various unions that everybody has their shoulder to the wheel. I have no doubt we can make a success of this.
The question I have, and it was hinted at by Deputy Lahart earlier, is in terms of school principals and boards of management not being public health inspectors. They are not people with a professional background in disease control. The concern many principals have is the role the Department of Education and Skills, the HSE, the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, or public health officials will have in terms of ensuring schools comply with the guidelines that are being set out. I will put that question to the ASTI initially.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I referenced in my opening statement that pupil-teacher ratios, as the Deputy correctly pointed out, are among the highest in the OECD. That presents an additional problem in dealing with this, and certainly the space issue is going to vary from school to school in terms of dealing with the return . The health advice contains a section which argues for the maximisation of space within schools to ensure that as many people as can possibly and safely return on any given day can be accommodated. We have no problem with that and we support it. However, there are many schools with narrow corridors, smaller older buildings, smaller classrooms and so on where that is not going to be a particularly helpful suggestion.
In terms of the policing of schools and how they are dealing with it, there is, as the Deputy will be aware, a role for the HSA under the national return to work protocol. Certainly, we will be absolutely vigilant in ensuring that role is carried out with regard to schools. Obviously, students do not return to work, so there is an additional veneer there. There is no question about the nature of schools and the extent to which there is interest in them. We do not foresee a widespread problem, and I hope I am right in saying this, with a failure to adhere to what is required because of the extent to which schools are watched both internally and publicly.
We hope that will not be a particularly major issue.
The key objective we have is to get back to operating safely. The lead worker in the protocol will be very active in ensuring that from his or her perspective, everything is done properly. A spin-off from that will be that the position will be well monitored within schools. Challenges abound in that respect.
I have a quick question for the INTO and TUI. There are different social distancing guidelines or regulations relating to children of different ages. In primary school there could be children in junior and senior infants, first and up to second class operating with a different social distancing regime from students in third and fourth class and so on. In smaller schools there may be three or four classes in one classroom. For example, first, second and third class could be together in one room. What difficulty does the INTO envisage for schools coping with that, given that these may be schools with two or three teachers?
My final question for the TUI relates to the leaving certificate problem for students in fifth year who will go in to sixth year. How will the leaving certificate look next year, given there could be a curtailment of fieldwork, oral exams and practical components of subjects? How might the leaving certificate look next year?
Ms Mary Magner:
I am glad the Deputy recognised the difficulties. For the past couple of years, the INTO sought a reduction in class sizes by one pupil per class per year over five years. There have been various budgets over the years and it is now more important than ever that this goal is delivered immediately. We often deal with class sizes greater than 30 and this is possibly related to an earlier question as to why Irish schools did not open earlier.
The recommendations for social distancing indicate it should happen "where possible". As the Deputy states, with junior and senior infants it will not be possible to enforce social distancing but it will be possible in higher classes. In smaller schools there may be several classes in one room, a teaching principal and undersized classrooms. Not all classrooms are 80 sq. m, and there can certainly be a major difficulty for a teaching principal or teachers in such cases where they must deal with 1 m social distancing.
I thank the witnesses for their submissions and participation this afternoon. I have not seen the interim guidance they refer to but it is clear there seems to be considerable concern about management, cost and resourcing, as well as implementation of safety and new working arrangements. I imagine many schools will see many more difficulties than others, as they may have existing poor conditions with respect to ventilation, heating control and dampness. These would already exacerbate respiratory problems with children. I specifically refer to the use of Portakabins and overcrowding. With this in mind, I wonder if every school should have a Covid-19 officer on-site and in place to oversee the management of the extra work that was referred to earlier. Is it something that is being considered? There are obvious cost implications but would it assuage the fears of staff, students and parents?
My second question is for the witnesses from the ASTI.
They have noted that teachers' digital expertise is developing rapidly . They also said that nothing matches a live classroom setting. If we need to go back to more online or digital forms of teaching, what further will be required to make it a better experience for both teachers and students? Is it more training for students, more training for teachers, more IT support in the school or more equipment? There is a question of students not having equipment but what is the position in terms of the teachers themselves? Is it a matter of consistency in the platforms being used across online teaching? If, say, one of the software providers was to offer a service like Microsoft Teams free for a year to students and schools, would that help?
In terms of my third question, the witnesses have called for other new initiatives to be suspended while we are absorbing all of this change. What initiatives would they seek to have deferred or suspended?
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I might come in on this. Deputy Matthews's first question essentially had to do with the environment of schools. There is clearly a difficulty. Many of the buildings are old. As stated in my submission, the buildings were with a view to congregating students, bringing them together. It was largely an industrial model and it does not work in the circumstances of Covid-19. That is the simple truth of the matter. There is need for improvement but we are realistic. Not everything that we ask or wish for, or that others might wish for, can be done in the hurry that is facing us from now on. The best that can be done is the best that can be done.
The Deputy asked specifically whether each school should have a Covid officer. Largely, one is working within the staffing structure of the school as it stands, with perhaps some supplement. For each officer that one determines one should have for a purpose of oversight, one is probably taking one unit out of the teaching cohort. I am not saying that that should not be done but clearly one has to backfill the gap that one thereby creates. Mr. Boyle made mention of that. That transacts differently at second level where one is looking for subject specific substitution, which is much harder to come by, and impossible in the case of some subjects.
On the digital equalisation, the Deputy listed a number of things. I would say it is a case of "all of the above", but in which order? It is a governmental issue, not just a Department of Education and Skills issue, to ensure that the broadband structure is improved, and it is not good at all in some places.
There is a matter of training but I have to be fair to all concerned. There is now a plethora of training available online. The quality of some of it may not be as it should be, and there probably is need for some quality control of that.
I would have a real concern about giving the education system over to a particular commoditised platform. I do not believe that is necessarily the way to do things and I also do not believe that we should make ourselves the prisoners of any particular product. That would be ill-advised and might have downstream effects we would not wish for.
If I can, I wish to make one observation to do with post-primary schools. It both speaks to what Deputy Matthews said and what Deputy Lahart asked. Can we restrict movement by having students in a base classroom in the same place all the time? We can do that to a very limited extent. We can do it where subjects are set. I refer, for example, to where Irish is on for all second year students at a given time. However, it cannot be done in respect of options and most of our timetable comprises options.
Lastly, in terms of practical issues to do with practical subjects, we are going to have to make pragmatic accommodation to ensure that as much of the syllabi as can be transacted over the course of the coming year is transacted. However, we will have to take account of the fact that, in terms of practical classes where we have multiple users of rare and expensive pieces of equipment, the cleansing regime alone that would be required to conduct such classes will probably not be possible in all instances.
We are going to have to make adjustments to the assessment model as opposed to cutting syllabi per se. We do not want to lose the richness or depth of our syllabi.
Ms Deirdre MacDonald:
I would like to address the issues relating to the digital divide. There is a digital divide for students and teachers. Teachers have to be commended in the highest manner on their exponential self-education in the face of huge need. They were not found wanting. The thing they needed and did not have was hardware. They were using their own hardware or acquired that of other family members by begging or borrowing. This should not be the case in this age. We always sell Ireland as a digital front runner. When it comes resources for education, that is not the case. The hardware issue must be addressed.
Training is needed for students and for teachers. I wish to make one very important point about teacher training. It must be teacher-led and it must address the needs of the teacher, not the perceived needs of the teacher or those of a great body. We are a very catholic group - we have various skills and we lack others. Training must address teachers' actual needs.
There is a huge initiative overload across the primary and secondary sectors. We should look to Scotland, where inspection is being suspended. We need a realignment. The inspectorate's role must be changed to make it a support structure. Regarding an earlier question on the Health and Safety Authority, I am aware that some environmental health officers and staff from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been allocated to augment the authority's activities in the context of its support and inspection roles. Our inspectorate can definitely play a supportive role with respect to the safety statements.
I am not sure if the witnesses can hear me. I am trying to be fair to everybody, both the members asking questions and the witnesses. I have tried to interject a couple of times to keep people to their time and I am giving people a bit of latitude. I ask witnesses to listen to me when I try to bring their contributions to a close. I have to be fair to everybody.
I would like to add to what others have said. The school experience of young people is not just about dealing with teachers. We need to hear the voices of school wardens, special needs assistants, caretakers and secretaries. They are all worried about going back in September, what it will mean for them, how they are going to be trained and how they will do their jobs.
I ask the representatives of the ASTI and the TUI to speak about fifth year students, particularly vulnerable fifth year students. Many members of the ASTI and the TUI are concerned that some fifth year students may not come back, particularly vulnerable ones, because of the length of time they have been out of the school system. There is no legal requirement for them to be in school after the age of 16. Are the witnesses concerned that a vulnerable generation may be lost to the school system because of Covid-19?
I would like to ask the representatives of the INTO about class sizes. Is it reasonable to request that the Government suspend all teacher losses so that no school will lose a teacher over the summer, thereby allowing them to be effectively equipped to deal with the massive challenge coming in September?
There seems to be an assumption on everybody's part that children and students are manageable at all times. Not every Johnny or Mary behaves at all times. That should be stressed. We must discuss how discipline issues might be dealt with in a socially distanced environment if a child is a danger to themselves or others.
Is it not the case that if the Minister intends to restrict access to education or to school by any enrolled students, she has to refer to section 25 of the Education Act 1998 and must consult patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions?
Have the witnesses had any contact from the newly-appointed Minister about regulations that will have to issue under section 25 of the Education Act, 1998?
Do we not need a multimillion euro cash and resources package to reopen our schools in September? The schools need to be staffed, cleaned, sanitised and run. Other areas of society and the economy will receive justifiable and welcome financial packages. Is it not reasonable that education will also get a sizeable package, commensurate with the impact that education has in Irish life, particularly on young lives? We need more than a statement such as the one issued yesterday by the Department. Money is going to matter when students go back to school in September. As others have said, we are working together to try to achieve that.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I will reply, if I may. Deputy Ó Ríordáin raises an issue that is dear to all our hearts inasmuch as nobody ever wants to see vulnerable students falling out of the system. We have concerns about that, there is no question about it, because it is a real possibility. We note that there will be a programme this summer in schools that operate under the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme. I hope there will be a decent uptake of that programme to try to address those issues but I suspect it might be only chipping at the iceberg, so to speak.
The Deputy also asked about making up for lost time, for want of a better phrase. There are positives within the system. OECD studies down the years have shown that teachers in Ireland spend more time in their classrooms than the vast majority of teachers in other countries. Making up for lost time will be, to some extent, happily fed by that reality.
There are other means of mitigating what has taken place. My colleague, Ms McDonald, mentioned that the State Examinations Commission could provide more variety in the breadth of examinations.
I would not discount the fact that an enormous amount of work has been done with the generality of such students since March. They are not as far behind as people might imagine. I also might point out that if we are clever in our approach and cut back to the bare bones of what will be important in the coming year, we must consider getting away from initiative overload. That practice has plagued schools in recent years. A new raft of initiatives must be dealt with whenever teachers come in for a new year. We should get back to concentrating on teaching students. There is also a big role for the inspectorate in providing support.
The former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, is fond of putting phrases from films into his speeches and I will follow suit when I tell Deputy Ó Ríordáin, "I like your thinking". I like what he said about the cash package for schools and see nothing wrong with it. We can use any phraseology we want but there is no question that this is going to be costly. We, and our colleagues in Fórsa and unions that represent other personnel, will be crying out for proper resourcing for the return to school. It is not going to be cheap and there is no point in pretending it will be and that all we need to do is to buy sufficient hand sanitiser. There will be enormous challenges here and the really costly element will not be the sanitising and so on. I hope the Government steps up to the plate because the necessity to source and provide extra staffing for schools will be essential to maximise the potential of what can be achieved.
I acknowledge that this has been a very welcome debate, as expected.
I do think we are lacking the representatives of the SNAs and school secretaries. The Chairman had a bit of a pop at me in the first session because I highlighted the fact that I felt Fórsa should have been here today. I make a specific request to the Acting Chairman that maybe we can have Fórsa presenting at a different session at some point later on. It would be very worthwhile to hear its take.
I thank the contributors and want to ask them about mental health and well-being in schools as we come into September. Every document I get from the Department rightly emphasises well-being. I spent a lot of time in classrooms during my previous career and I am conscious that sometimes we can speak to well-being without actually investing in it. What type of well-being would the witnesses like to see in schools as we come into September, October and November? I am conscious that we are dealing with students who have experienced a significant degree of trauma. That is going to be facing not only the students but also the teachers when they go back to schools. What sort of well-being do we need for students? I am thinking of increased guidance counselling hours, or having the National Educational Psychological Service on the ground. What types of supports do we need to offer teachers? The teachers I know always take on the emotional well-being of their students but that task is going to increase. How do we support our teachers to deal with this in the autumn?
Mr. John Boyle:
I thank the Deputy. There are two different sets of well-being here. Let us look at the staff for a start. They were very anxious at the beginning about the closure of the schools. As they went into facilitating remote teaching and learning, there was a high level of anxiety among teachers, particularly in primary school. Some were receiving emails from parents at all hours of the night and were correcting work that they could just as easily have done in a classroom in a couple of seconds. I highlight the planning and preparation that has had to go into that "new normal" for the last 12 school weeks. They are coming into the summer now and, please God, they will get a bit of a break. The anxiety will rise again as they go back, particularly with all these questions about social distancing. They are asking if it does not have to happen for them although it has to happen in other parts of the workforce. There is a new provider coming into the field of education to provide for teachers' occupational health. It used to be Medmark but a new company is taking over. A teacher or staff member may be suffering from anxiety or have difficulties, for example, if somebody in their family has passed away over this period or somebody in their family has an underlying health condition. Then there is the whole issue of facing the students again, some of whom also have difficulties with their well-being, their families and their own heads. That support is going to have to be ramped up.
Then there are the students themselves, particularly those who may be at risk, who are vulnerable or who do not always behave, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin mentioned. Some teachers in special schools are going to feel they will need visors, PPE, aprons and gloves. That is all fine but if a teacher finds himself or herself in that situation, it is a great challenge. It is always a challenge but particularly at the time of a pandemic. I mentioned the child and adolescent mental health services earlier, and referred also to NEPS and to advice and guidance from the inspectorate. A document is not enough. There has to be personnel available to the schools. NEPS is always good at a time of a terrible crisis in a school. For many schools, there will be an ongoing crisis of a kind, particularly in September and October. Rather than documentation and well-being policies, we need to see money put into that. More important, we need to see human resources put into schools so that if a teacher has to isolate a child, the teacher is covered and has a chance to get over the trauma of having to bring the sad news to the family that the child, who is only back at school, seems to have contracted the virus. It is going to be a big challenge. If the Government wants to pump money into schools and cleaning, that is fine, and I think we will get that, but we need human resources and that is going to cost a lot of money in the first term of the school year.
I thank Mr. Boyle. I am sorry for cutting him off but I have one more question. I want to speak about the contradiction in messaging in the last couple of weeks. I almost had a perverse smile last week when the National Transport Authority announced that masks would need to be worn on public transport, as they should be. Then we were told that PPE would not be expected in schools.
When travelling to school previously, one would often be on a bus with the students one taught. Is there an expectation that a teacher must wear a mask on a bus but take it off when entering a classroom? Will that scenario create conflict in the schools among teachers who rightly want to protect their health?
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I understand that there is a contradiction in messaging. Quite frankly, there are several contradictions not just in terms of schools but elsewhere as well. Maybe that is inevitable. Specifically on the issue of masks and PPE, we do not have a hard and fast position on masks. We will be guided by public health advice where that is concerned. Our preference, to be truthful, is that people would not have to wear masks because a great deal of what is transacted in schoolrooms has to do with eye contact and with the facial expressions of both students and teachers. Our preference would be not to have to rely on PPE. If one gets to the point where there is reliance on PPE, and certainly a reliance beyond masks, other than where traditionally necessary and mandated, let us say in practical subjects, then one has a very fundamental problem because the transaction that is anticipated within a classroom is fundamentally fractured by that. We must wait and see how public health advice develops in order to make a judgment. Our preference is not to have to rely on it, if possible.
I thank the three contributors for their submissions. Obviously, People before Profit supports the ideas outlined in the submissions. We cannot forget that schools are a fundamental educational space in the State but they are also a workplace for teachers, students and staff so they must be safe and so forth. Covid-19 has highlighted the great fault lines in public services in terms of education, health, etc. It has also highlighted the pupil-teacher ratio. Ireland has the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the EU. In that context, Irish classrooms will probably look very different in September than they did last March. Are there enough resources to meet the challenges? If not, the situation will be a lot worse.
For the benefit of the people viewing the debate, will our guests please outline what a typical classroom of one teacher, 30 students and, possibly, an SNA, will look like in September, taking into account the current public health guidelines? Some schools have 1,000 pupils, so adhering to social distancing will be extremely challenging. Will our guests please answer my question on resources and outline what a typical classroom in this State will look like in September?
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
I will try to be brief so that my colleague can also comment. On the first question, the resources are not there. That is why we have pointed out, and it has been repeated on numerous occasions, the need for human resources.
I reiterate some of the points that were made earlier. There is a pastoral element tied very closely to the issue of well-being and mental health that simply takes time. That is really what is going to be lacking if we do not get the necessary resources - and the necessary human resources - on the ground to do what is required.
I thank the Deputy for his question. He is absolutely right that the Covid crisis has not just highlighted but has also greatly exacerbated the underlying inequalities that bedevil our society. We have deep concerns about those who have been left behind. This has been pointed out through extraordinary efforts by teachers since March and by extraordinary efforts by families and the entire school community. Enormous work has been done, but there is no question that some have been left behind. We have a real concern about that.
What a classroom will look like will vary depending on the size of the room, the number of students in the class and the architecture of the school. That is why we need detailed engagement to begin, based on the public health guidelines, in order that we can feed that in and have a clear proposal that goes to local considerations.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
The Deputy asked what a classroom with 30 students, two special needs assistants, SNAs, and a teacher will look like in September. It will look empty because our members will not be there under the current medical advice. That advice is such that the scenario outlined by the Deputy is an impossibility if social distancing is to be maintained. That is a reality that must be faced. The medical advice published yesterday means that social distancing will have to be observed between students and between the students and the teacher. I will be unequivocal: our members will not be involved in situations where the medical advice is not being followed.
I am conscious that I have already made several points on the issue of resources. An additional point is that resources are crucial to the success of this undertaking. A previous speaker mentioned that various other sectors of the economy will receive a stimulus package. One can use whatever language one likes, but dealing with this issue will be costly.
Ms Mary Magner:
On what a classroom will look like at primary level, we anticipate that we will operate in a bubble. Classes will not interact with the class next door, etc. Within each classroom there will be pods, that is, four pupils around one set of tables and another four at an adjacent set of tables at 1 m distance or more. Obviously, one size does not fit all. The size of the classroom will have a bearing in this regard. There will be no mixing in classes above second class, no queueing for toilets or equipment and no sharing of resources. Funding will be required for additional resources to ensure that resources are not shared among pupils.
I wish to speak on the primary school sector. I view primary schooling as formative education while secondary schools deliver academic education. In the primary school sector, we are trying to develop children's skill sets and socialisation, build their esteem, facilitate group learning and so on. In secondary education, we are trying to channel students into careers.
Mr. Boyle stated that primary schools will need increased supports from NEPS and CAMHS and more SNAs. From where will substitute teachers come? My experience from dealing with parents is that such teachers are not in the system. From where will they to come?
Mr. John Boyle:
There was a crisis in substitution over the past two years. We identified that crisis coming down the tracks and dreamed up the idea of having panels available to cover teaching principals' release days. The substitutes on those panels were taken up very quickly. The substitute teachers were given a job for the year and, as such, their employment was no longer precarious. They covered several schools and gave certainty to everybody involved, including pupils, parents and principals, that absences would be covered by a person known to the school. Last year, we built on that project. We established a very successful small pilot scheme entitled the supply panel scheme. The 18 teachers involved were based in only six schools but covered a total of 90 schools. It was cost neutral because instead of being paid the daily rate they would have received anyway, the substitutes were guaranteed work for the year. They were not idle. Even during Covid-19, they continued to work with their classes remotely. We think that is the solution for primary schools.
The Deputy asked from where we will get substitute teachers.
It appears to us that it will be from the number of trained teachers who have come back from abroad. Obviously, they are still waiting for pay equality but they have returned due to Covid-19. They are not really able to get off the island at the moment and are happy to stay here and help out, just like when the nurses came back to help out. We want to ensure the teachers who have returned stay here. We want to ensure they are paid and brought into the primary education system to support us in this crisis and afterwards to get the class sizes down.
I do not imagine there is any concern about teacher supply in the primary sector if it is managed properly. Why would a teacher stay around this country working when she is not guaranteed more than two or three days in the month? If we can get the system right from September, we will have enough substitutes to deal with that. I have a bigger query. Can we open the schools? I believe we can. Can we keep them open? Certainly not if we do not have substitutes. It is possible if there is some creative thinking and some funding put in place.
Mr. Boyle made a comment about creative thinking. We have seen this year in secondary schools how modular and streamed education has allowed children to interact. I imagine there was a big difference between what was done at remote learning stage for primary schools and secondary schools this year. I would expect that was because of the age difference.
I believe we will have a problem when the schools come back because I believe we will have clusters of infection in the country. Therefore, it will not be possible to have every school opened or to have the required amount of teachers. Why not try to get teachers together and do modular training in the curriculum? Why not stream that out to several schools rather than having each individual teacher teaching in each individual school?
Mr. John MacGabhann:
It is an interesting question but is not something that can be addressed in the current circumstances because we do not have the time or the window for it. We need to consider what can be done at post-primary level where, unfortunately, we do not have the situation that Mr. Boyle has described in the primary sector. We do not have an excess of teachers. We do not have an over-supply. In fact we have a supply crisis that has simply been anaesthetised for the period of the Covid-19 closure.
Two things can be done specifically. The first is that those undertaking the second year of the professional masters of education course, that is, people who are well socialised into the teaching and school environment, could be deployed, on a properly paid basis, to fill subject-specific gaps across the system. I am unsure whether this would fill every gap but it would help.
The other thing relates to preparation for all of this. The principal teachers and others in the senior management structures of the schools require assistance. The assistance, as I said previously, will largely come from within the existing cohort. We have models that are used for assistance where examinations are concerned. One scheme was called examination aid. More recently, it has been called calculated grades aid. We could have a Covid-19 aid with someone who would have the title of "Covid-19 planning aid" with an appropriate and relatively modest budget following that.
On the broader issue of streaming classes from some centralised position here, there and thither, there are students who will give feedback and we must have teachers who will receive that feedback, mark assignments and so forth. We cannot create an overload for individual teachers. We still have to maintain what would be a reasonable workload for teachers. That means we require not a concentration of students with one teacher but more teachers to ensure that we do not get an over-concentration of students.
I thank the witnesses in attendance today. I might call out the questions I have all together. The teacher representatives may answer some. Others are related to transport, as part of this was meant to be transport day.
It is my understanding that students are asked to pay approximately two thirds of the cost of accommodation in August of each year to secure a place in student accommodation in the coming academic year. However, based on the uncertainty arising from the coronavirus about returning to college in September and the real possibility that colleges may suspend all lectures at any time, as opposed to attending for two days per week, which is what the colleges are advising at the moment, I believe that accommodation fees should be spread out accordingly for the year 2020-21.
The education of the children in schools and colleges is of the utmost importance to the teacher representatives. Has the Department made provision towards safeguarding students from having to pay for accommodation that they may not have occasion to use should colleges reopen? The issue is that parents normally have to pay approximately €3,200 in August and the balance of €1,800 in early January.
If it were broken down into four payments, for example covering two months each, parents would at least be out of pocket for only €1,250 instead of €3,200. Let us not forget that the refund credit was offered to parents from 12 March 2020 to the end of May. Many parents were forced to travel in excess of 200 km during the strictest period of lockdown to empty apartments and were told by email that the contents would be bagged up if they were not collected. Have our guests any comments to make as to how students can have this issue resolved?
For schools whose budget is either tight or gone, is it the teacher, the special needs assistant, the parents or the pupils who will have to carry out the additional cleaning in schools or has the Department told our guests what plans it has in that regard? The only way that schools can fund all additional cleaning works in the schools and the purchase of personal protective equipment and disinfectant products is through an increase in the capitation grant. Has the Department indicated how it intends to fund the additional work that needs to be carried out?
Has the Department let our guests know what plans have been made for children who have to board in private schools?
On transport, is there a plan in place or has clarification been given as to whether additional school buses will be provided? What will be the seating plans on the buses? Will the children have to wear face masks? In general, is any type of a plan in place or is it still to be figured out?
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
On the question about colleges, we are in something of a hiatus in advance of the creation of the new Department with responsibility for higher education. That means there is a further process involving a different Minister who needs to be engaged. We have had some discussion of some matters concerning the return to higher and further education, but there is definitely a further need for what the Deputy outlined and the committee might address some of that at a future meeting.
With regard to cleaning, I expect there will have to be a new budget and new staff for that because it will be a level of cleaning that has never before been undertaken, for a purpose that had never previously existed. The clarity is not yet there but we fully expect there to be a dedicated and new budget. The same is true for any concerns we have with regard to additional costs falling on hard-pressed families and parents and schools that are already overstretched. This, again, will have to be new money and it is very important in all of this that there is an early commitment.
It goes back to a point made by Deputy Ó Ríordáin. There needs to be an early commitment to providing a package. There is nothing better that money can be spent on than education because it solves so many of our problems. It is not a problem in itself; it is the solution to almost every problem if it is resourced correctly. That is the way to view this. It is a vital stimulus for the entire country. These new challenges have to be faced by new resources and approaches. That is what we are looking to secure and it is the point we will make repeatedly in our engagements.
Mr. John Boyle:
On the issue of student teachers, I am not privy to what is happening in respect of their accommodation but we are aware that the colleges and the Teaching Council are examining a different way of conducting school placement. In my view, every student teacher this year deserves to have a Covid school experience. They deserve to get into schools and knuckle down, and not to be inspected in this scenario. They should be able to find out what it is like for parents, pupils and teachers having to deal with a pandemic, because that experience will serve them well into the future. It would be a great resource for schools to have at their disposal, as well as being experience for the student teachers. Given that there are 3,250 primary schools, many student teachers come from rural Ireland. They could stay at home during that period and would not have to pay for accommodation in the cities at that time.
As to cleaning, a procurement process for hand sanitisers will be put in place and there will be a limited supply of PPE for emergencies. Special schools are very concerned about this and the transport issue. It is critical that the Department gets this right. We are not privy to the discussions on school transport as of yet but we are very worried that if the fleet size is not suitable, children with special needs may lose out on their schooling for the lack of a bus. There will have to be funding or some other way to find a solution to bring those children to their schools safely and to keep everybody else there safe when they arrive. Without doubt, money will also have to be spent on that in the weeks ahead.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
With regard to cleaning, the truth is that extra personnel will have to be employed because there will be a hell of a lot more cleaning to be done.
On transport, schools cannot be expected to take on the role of quality assurance for a service for which they have no direct responsibility.
Mr. Boyle said at the beginning that the health and safety of students, union members and everyone else who works in schools are of the utmost concern. The INTO is an all-island body. Is there much difference between the regime the union will have to work under in this State, as has been elucidated, and that in Northern Ireland? Is the union happy there is no difference between what has been set out for each jurisdiction and that students and union members will be equally safe in both?
Mr. John Boyle:
We have not been happy from the very beginning. Schools were closed in Northern Ireland the Friday after we closed. During that week, there was heightened anxiety because some teachers work on both sides of the Border. Many teachers who are substituting on either side ended up getting no payment whatsoever during the crisis because they did not qualify on either side. We still hope this will be worked through.
With regard to safety, in many respects the Republic of Ireland's Department is ahead in terms of planning and preparation for reopening because it has the Covid-19 school response plan. Ironically, however, the Northern Ireland schools are due to open a few days before ours. There are major differences in the way the sectors work. We have a direct funding system. It is totally inadequate in that there is €1 per day for a child in a primary school. This is hardly enough to get a bottle of hand sanitiser in the current climate. Be that as it may, it is central. In Northern Ireland, however, the school budget is given to a school and it has to make do with it. It is dependent on a lot of money coming across from London. Therefore, there are differences in the approach but it is incumbent on the new Government to have joined-up thinking on this island. We take great pride in the fact that ours is a 32-county organisation. We want our members, no matter what side of the Border they are working on, and the children and their families to be kept safe. I hope there will be a lot more work done in the weeks ahead, while the schools are closed, to get that sorted for September.
Pardon my ignorance, but I do not know whether the TUI and ASTI are all-Ireland bodies. I know the position on the INTO. What are the differences in the social distancing regimes envisaged for students and the differences that are to apply to different ages? It would seem a little strange if something were required to keep us safe in Monaghan while, a mile up the road in Fermanagh, something else were required. How similar are our requirements to those of other EU member states.
Mr. John Boyle:
They have been similar in the North and South since yesterday because we only got the guidance on the 1 m distance yesterday. Obviously, adults must try to stay 2 m apart. That is consistent with what was announced in Northern Ireland last week. The difference is that we had childcare guidance in respect of which it was felt that social distancing was not practical for younger age groups at primary level. Northern Ireland has not issued such guidance as of yet but I hear it may be coming. There is a certain level of consistency all right. The other unions do not have the same question to answer but it might arise for some of their workers. They are not organised in Northern Ireland.
I have two follow-up questions. The first concerns the leaving certificate examinations. Could the representatives of the various unions confirm what guidance they have sought or whether they intend to seek guidance on the practical, oral and fieldwork components of the various subjects next year? I am asking because of the debacle over whether the leaving certificate examinations would happen and the rescinding of the marks awarded for the oral examinations.
That cannot be allowed to happen again. Can the union representatives confirm whether they intend to seek that advice?
Like many other Deputies, I have been inundated with requests from people to help them with July provision for this year. Did the scheme run as normal this year? Was the uptake similar to other years or were the difficulties compounded by Covid-19? It is important that if the pandemic persists into next summer, we would take on board any recommendations from the representative bodies.
Ms Deirdre MacDonald:
I refer to the incoming group which will, we hope, sit the leaving certificate in 2021. The calculated grades system was a once-off. Teachers did enormous work under incredible pressure. We have time this year to plan. As I said, it is about engagement with the SEC and planning to cut our cloth according to our measure in order to ensure that the various elements of the assessment, including orals, practicals, field trips, etc., can be done.
Mr. John MacGabhann:
I will address the question on practicals and orals first. I understand that there are 17 subjects at leaving certificate level which involve more than one assessment component. The effect is widespread across a large number of subjects. What is required is realism. To be entirely fair to the Department of Education and Skills, it advised us a number of weeks ago that it had by that point begun an engagement with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which is the first port of call in determining not how to tailor or curtail the curriculum but rather how to guide delivery of the curriculum in a manner that is fair to all.
Timing is an important issue. I agree it would be appropriate and the very best for all concerned if a decision could be made as early as possible on whether to go ahead with a written leaving certificate next year. It is our fixed intention to so do because, as Ms MacDonald said, this year was a once-off. To be fair to the Department, the engagement has begun. We are up for that at any point and we will be involved appropriately.
I want to take the Deputy up on one point. What happened this year was not a debacle. Rather, it was a very structured and engaged process involving all of the stakeholders. We moved from having no alternative to having an alternative that will provide for our current sixth year students State certification, through the Department of Education and Skills, in a manner that is recognised for purposes including entry to third level, apprenticeships or employment. In fairness to all concerned, and I include the unions, it was remarkable that we arrived at the situation we did. Major work continues to be done in schools in respect of the calculated grades model.
I have forgotten the Deputy's second question. My apologies for that.
Ms Mary Magner:
The question on July provision is probably the question to which Mr. MacGabhann is referring. We are really proud of our primary teachers and the role INTO members have played in regard to July provision, the provision of DEIS summer camps and the delivery of the school meals programme this year. There has been a significant take-up by teachers, even though guidance on the schemes came out very late. We wish to acknowledge what teachers have done for vulnerable pupils.
Unfortunately, we are out of time. We have to stick to our guidelines and the session cannot exceed two hours.
I thank all our witnesses for attending today, for the information they provided and for their frank responses. It was a good engagement. Is it agreed to request the Clerk to seek any follow-up information and carry out any agreed actions arising from the meeting? Agreed.