Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 September 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Covid-19: Review of the Reopening of Schools
I welcome our guests from the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and Fórsa, who are joining us by video link from committee room 2 and whom we can see, to review the preparations for the reopening of schools and how the reopening is operating in practice. From the TUI, I welcome Mr. Martin Marjoram, president, Mr. Michael Gillespie, general secretary; from the ASTI, Ms Ann Piggott, president, Mr. Kieran Christie, general secretary; from the INTO, Mr. John Boyle, general secretary, and Ms Mary Magner, president; and from Fórsa, Mr. Andy Pike, national secretary, and Ms Liz Fay, industrial relations officer. They are all very welcome to our meeting this morning.
Before we commence the formal proceedings, I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, they must respect that direction. 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.
I thank all our guests for all the work that each organisation and its members have done to try to get schools reopened safely this week. Everybody is extremely grateful and we look forward to this session.
I invite Mr. Gillespie to make his opening statement and ask him to confine it to five minutes.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
The Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, welcomes this opportunity to address the committee today. Our 19,500 members deliver high-quality public education across a wide range of settings, including second level schools and colleges, centres for education, institutes of technology and technological universities. The TUI would like to thank all the principals and deputy principals, teachers, special needs assistants, school secretaries and caretakers, all of whom have worked tirelessly over the past few months to get schools ready to welcome back students.
The closure of school buildings on 12 March and its impact on staff and students have demonstrated beyond doubt that, notwithstanding the significant efforts made to ensure continuity of learning, nothing replaces face-to-face teaching and learning. The schools we left on 12 March have been completely reconfigured and look very different. A TUI survey of more than 120 second level schools, conducted in mid-August, illustrated significant challenges involved in a safe reopening, including difficulties employing contractors to make adjustments to buildings and difficulties recruiting teachers at a time when a two-tier pay system imposed by the Government is still undermining the morale of the profession. The injustice of the two-tier pay system came to the fore again when the Department provided additional supervision to schools and decided to pay teachers differently, depending on their start date, to undertake the exact same work. This damaging discrimination needs to end.
TUI members will not accept any departure from the public health guidelines, including the absolute necessity to maintain a physical distance of not less than 1 m - preferably 2 m - in our schools. Unfortunately, we have had reports in recent days of schools that have not yet put the necessary measures in place. We reiterate that the TUI will not permit non-compliance on this key issue. The entire school community must observe and respect public health advice and do everything possible to minimise the spread of Covid-19. Schools have already made significant adjustments, but they need the ability to ensure compliance with these measures. Therefore, a nationally mandated addendum to a school’s code of behaviour is required. As soft face coverings are a critical safety measure, a policy is needed to prevent the wearing of soft face coverings with slogans or logos that may be offensive in a school community.
While the TUI welcomes the resources put in place by the Department to date, the challenges faced by schools are significant because our education system was chronically underfunded before the current health emergency, with the lowest spend on second level education compared with other OECD countries and the largest class size in Europe. Furthermore, it is necessary that a safe and available school transport system is in place for all students who rely on that service. The TUI will keep the circumstances in each school under review and if more resources are required, we will unapologetically seek them.
Any delay in providing necessary resources puts at unacceptable risk the health and safety of our school communities.
Many teachers do not have school-provided ICT devices. They are uploading licensed software to personal devices. This is unsatisfactory. Teachers also need ICT training, in case the need arises to close a school partially or fully.
Some schools have a significant number of students categorised as very high risk and additional resources will be needed to ensure those students have access to technology to continue their education at home. A major obstacle in this regard is the digital divide, where some students simply do not have access to broadband or the required technology to engage effectively. Failure to address this will exacerbate inequality.
We must not forget that a teacher’s workplace is the school and schools are crowded places. A teacher working in a classroom of 49 sq. m can have up to 24 students with him or her in a class. Some teachers have been categorised by the occupational health provider, OHP, as being at high risk although their own medical advisers have categorised them as being very high risk and working like this creates acute anxiety in the workplace. The TUI made strong representations to the Minister on this matter and confirmation of an appeal process is welcome. Given the rise in the number of young adults being tested for Covid-19, and the fact that many of our students are young adults, the TUI asserts that access to rapid Covid-19 testing for all staff and students is essential to help limit disruption in schools.
We welcome the adjustments to the assessments for State examinations. However, further adjustments to the curriculum or assessments or both may also be required as circumstances unfold. Our students with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be forgotten or left behind. Customised interventions and supports may be required to reintegrate them into school. Our members will work to ensure these students are identified early and prioritised. Failure to do so will have a lifelong effect on these students.
The TUI has stated emphatically and repeatedly that we will operate in accordance with the public health advice. We will not put our students, their families, their communities and teachers at risk. Our members have played a critical role in reopening our schools but we now need to tackle the next challenges, which include keeping schools open and making sure no student, for whatever reason, is left behind and that teachers can maintain a worthwhile educational experience for all students. The Department of Education and Skills needs to maintain the intensive ongoing engagement between the various partners to meet these challenges.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I thank the committee for the invitation.
Planning for the return to school was a fraught and complex process and there is a lot of trepidation and worry amongst ASTI members. Phenomenal work to prepare was undertaken by school management teams, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and ancillary staff across the country. Over those weeks, the ASTI commissioned research and some of the sample findings included 84% of principals reporting that their schools did not have a dedicated ventilation system and 25% of principals stating their schools did not have warm water in the school toilet facilities. A previous RED C survey commissioned by the ASTI found that 49% of teachers believed they work in schools with overcrowding in classrooms and 60% considered that there was inadequate storage available for staff and students. Indeed, Ireland ranks last of 35 OECD countries for investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.
This lack of investment must be addressed if schools are to continue to operate safely in the context of Covid-19. The ASTI is demanding that the Department of Education and Skills commission new school buildings and, in the meantime, order prefabs in recognition that the Government's approach of living alongside the virus into the future is going to require major investment in school infrastructure. Concerns also emerged about the feasibility of social distancing for students throughout school buildings, with 70% of principals surveyed rating the feasibility of social distancing in school corridors and other communal areas as weak.
We demand that an urgent review be undertaken of the physical distancing requirements for schools, given the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advice that only six people should congregate in any indoor setting and the lack of clarity in the guidance that underpins the operation of schools. We wrote to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and to the Minister for Health seeking a meeting with the HPSC, but our request has been declined thus far.
We have a question about the possibility of putting fast-track testing in place for schools in order to get results back in 24 hours, similar to those in the healthcare system, or within 48 hours at most. Why has this not been recommended and put in place? Why was there no recommendation to put Perspex, for instance, in front of teachers’ desks in classrooms, as I notice is in front of the Acting Chairman here today?
Why is there no temperature testing, at least for adults, when they arrive in school each day? Why was no guidance given on the numbers that could congregate for assemblies and staff meetings in schools?
We also seek clarity on the safety issues involved for students and teachers in the high-risk category. The ASTI has members whose illnesses include chronic kidney disease, cancer and serious heart disease. Anxiety levels among this group are very high. It is unconscionable that teachers who suffer the likes of these illnesses are being required to return to classrooms teaching sizeable groups. The ASTI demands alternative arrangements, such as working from home, for teachers who are in the high-risk category.
Additional concerns that we would like to discuss with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, have emerged further to the publication last week of the document, Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health approach. Provisions that are of concern include that where a case has been confirmed, it will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts; there is no blanket policy on testing entire year groups and classes in place; schools are not to inform parents or staff if a pupil or staff member goes home with symptoms; if someone goes home with symptoms, other staff and students do not need to be removed from the class, including siblings or other household members; and contact tracing will be done on a case-by-case basis. Experts have argued that if a single child is infected, the entire pod has to go home and isolate for two weeks and get tested. It is regrettable that those who are effectively making the decisions on these matters are refusing to meet representatives of those directly affected by them.
In addition, the Department of Education and Skills appears to be doing very little planning for the possibility that there might be individual schools or groups of schools closing down for a period. We all want the sustained reopening of schools and hope that this will not happen. However, this virus has shown itself to be persistent and it would be foolhardy to discount the possibility of closures.
Since the closure of schools in March 2020, the ASTI has repeatedly stated that remote learning is no replacement for face-to-face interaction between students and their teachers. That is a given. We have deep concerns about the lack of access to IT resources and broadband in many households. Teachers have spoken of finding three and four siblings working from one device. We have demanded that the Department of Education and Skills bulk purchase laptops for students and teachers so that every student has access to reliable IT equipment in the event of future closures.
On another matter, while the appointment of additional second level teachers is to be welcomed, the measure is inadequate in terms of achieving manageable class sizes and cover for Covid-19 sick leave during the pandemic. This is a major concern.
Investment in education must be seriously increased. We need support for teacher and student health and well-being, particularly the provision of alternative arrangements for the most medically vulnerable in our school communities. Guidance and advice to the system related to physical distancing need to be reviewed and updated. Staffing levels need to be adequately maintained and there must be proper contingency arrangements put in place to prepare for all eventualities.
My colleague from the TUI mentioned the situation regarding equal pay for equal work. It is unfortunate that the pandemic has not put an end to those kinds of practices in schools. We also call for an end to them. I will have additional points to make later. I thank the committee.
Mr. John Boyle:
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear before the committee this week as more than 500,000 pupils and 50,000 staff return to their primary and special school buildings. There is excitement and trepidation in equal measure. While INTO members are taking on the challenge of restarting formal education in the school system, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that all reasonable steps have been taken and all protections are in place to safeguard the members of the school community.
I acknowledge the progress made to date by the Department of Education and Skills with strong input from stakeholders, including the INTO. The publication of the roadmap for primary and special schools was welcomed. The urgent calls for additional resources and a centralised procurement system for the purchase of hand sanitiser and personal protective equipment, PPE, were listened to and acted upon. The additional grants to schools are also welcome and efforts to ensure they were paid in a timely fashion are appreciated. We also welcome the establishment of the supply panels and other teacher supply measures as a way to improve access to substitute teachers in the event of a teacher becoming sick or self-isolating with Covid-19 symptoms.
The INTO further welcomes the announcement that no new school self-evaluation activities will be expected this year, and that the inspectorate’s role will be more advisory and supportive.
I commend the serious volume of work that was done in schools throughout the country all over the summer, especially the sacrifices made by principal teachers and those who directly supported them. As we know, classrooms have been reconfigured and stripped of extraneous furniture, new sanitation stations have been installed, one-way systems have been mapped out, signage has been placed everywhere and communication with parents is ongoing. These practical matters are all in addition to the many changes involved in classroom management, supervising and reassuring pupils, creating class bubbles and pods and adapting the curriculum and teaching and learning to fit the new reality. Returning safely to school is a common goal shared by all members of the school community. Ongoing communication via the national media will be vital to ensure buy-in from the entire school community. Clear advice and guidance for parents on supporting their children will be required throughout the entire year.
As has been stated by my colleagues, we must facilitate teachers who are in the high risk category. We called for and received assurances that a robust appeal mechanism will be available to those who dispute original medical evaluations conducted by the occupational health service, Medmark. We must also ensure that everyone in the education sector has quick access to testing and tracing and that there is an ongoing surveillance system for the education sector. Schools are essential services and they are now the new front line in the battle against Covid-19. Of course, our teachers want to be back in school but they must have full confidence that where a case arises all necessary measures, to use the words of Dr. Ronan Glynn, will be taken to protect students and staff.
It is also essential that employers show flexibility for workers whose children have to self-isolate and that such workers receive payment while they are absent from their workplaces minding sick children. Otherwise, they will be disinclined to keep their children at home, adding further pressure and making schools unsafe. School leaders will need ongoing access to guidance, in addition to their leadership and management days, to deal with the additional responsibilities that continue to fall on them. The introduction of planned changes to the system and non-essential paperwork should be suspended for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. Stakeholder consultations are ongoing, and they will be vital to ensure that any change in circumstances can be anticipated, planned for and reacted to in a timely and comprehensive manner.
Just because schools are open, it does not mean there is nothing further to be done. It is imperative that a review be undertaken, by the end of September, to assess the reopening of schools and identify improvements which may be necessary. This review must be cross-governmental and include input from the HSA, the HSE, the inspectorate and all stakeholders. There has to be a trusting relationship between the HSE and schools if everyone is to remain safe throughout the year. Unless we are vigilant and in a position to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, schools may risk a second period of enforced closure.
Covid-19 has been a transformative experience for everyone in Irish society. With regard to primary schools, it has shone a harsh light on years of underinvestment, the massive size of our primary classes and the inadequate spaces they inhabit. No other European country had to issue illustrations of classrooms which were expected to accommodate up to 32 children in a class. It has also highlighted the degree to which the system relies on the goodwill and professionalism of school leaders. Principal teachers have taken on almost single-handedly the enormous task of managing the safe return to school of hundreds of thousands of children and staff. School leaders must be supported, facilitated and remunerated to continue this vital work in the coming school year.
We need to take this opportunity to re-evaluate what is important in our society, acknowledge what are essential services and value them accordingly.
For our younger teachers, that is, those who graduated after 2010, this means that the scourge of pay inequality needs to be eliminated for once and for all. Otherwise, after the Covid pandemic ends we will again see mass emigration of our brightest and best teachers overseas.
In regard to Covid-19, no one knows what will lie ahead. However, I am proud to say that Irish primary school teachers have answered the call and responded to this unprecedented situation, often despite personal anxiety and trauma, with the professionalism, integrity and duty of care that has been their hallmark.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill):I thank Mr. Boyle. I ask Mr. Pike to make his opening statement.
Mr. Andy Pike:
On behalf of the close to 20,000 non-teaching staff in schools, comprising school secretaries, caretakers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and others, including bus escorts, Fórsa trade union is pleased to have been asked to attend this meeting. We are very much looking forward to the opportunity to engage directly with the committee on these matters. Our opening statement covers five main areas: the position of staff with underlying health conditions; the availability and use of PPE; arrangements for attendance and testing; classroom supervision; and the use of isolation rooms.
We wish to make it clear that as the largest public service trade union in the State, Fórsa continues to support adherence to public health advice as we have done since the outset of the pandemic. Our comments today are intended to inform debate on the optimum way to manage the pandemic and our schools within the context of the prevailing public health advice.
The position of staff returning to school with underlying health conditions continues to cause concern. Staff such as SNAs and bus escorts are not able to practice social distancing due to the nature of their role. SNAs work side-by-side with students throughout the school day and bus escorts work in vehicles for several hours at a time in confined spaces where social distancing is simply not possible.
Not all students can or will wear face coverings. For instance, many students with additional care needs find wearing a face covering very difficult, if not impossible. SNAs and bus escorts also provide personal intimate care for students who will not use face coverings. Staff with underlying health conditions who have been classified as high risk should they contract Covid-19 have in many cases been advised to attend work in circumstances, despite their treating physician or specialist having advised against this.
Some progress has been made by way of securing a review of the initial occupational health assessment. However, we remain concerned that staff may still be directed to work side-by-side with students contrary to the HSE advice which states that those in a high-risk group should work remotely and that if they have to attend a workplace they should practice strict social distancing. This is not possible for SNAs and bus escorts.
The Department has advised schools that a range of PPE is available and can be purchased. This includes face visors and medical grade face masks as commonly used throughout our health and social care services on a routine basis. Staff are now reporting that a number of schools have either refused to purchase such equipment or are requiring staff to reuse face masks contrary to HSE advice. It is too early to be definitive as to the extent of this problem. We intend to survey members early next week on this issue. We can state to the committee that a significant number of staff are today providing personal care to students without adequate PPE. The equipment in question is in plentiful supply and is inexpensive. A medical grade face mask that provides protection against Covid-19 costs less than 50 cent.
We support the protocols for testing students and staff and note that the HSE is developing supports for school schools with regard to rapid testing. While we hope incidents of Covid-19 transmission in our schools we low, we believe there are advantages to conducting routine testing within our schools and universities. The introduction of regular testing in schools would maintain confidence that a safe working environment for students and staff can be maintained and would provide a degree of certainty for the school community, including parents.
There is one area where we believe public health advice could be reviewed, namely, the use of temperature testing. The current advice for parents is that children should not attend school if they have certain symptoms, including a pyrexia of 38°C. To date, temperature testing has not formed part of the measures introduced to combat the pandemic. While there has been no formal advice to schools to track temperatures, we have dealt with many queries about whether it will be required in schools and clarification would be helpful.
Other stakeholders may wish to comment on classroom supervision as it is an issue that should only affect teaching staff.
Fórsa, however, is concerned that the Department's guidance and local practice may allow for special educational needs teachers to be deployed to supervise mainstream classes to cover absences. Such practices reduce resources for students with additional care needs. Where this takes place, SNAs are very concerned they may then be asked to supervise classes. This is not their role, they are not qualified to supervise classes and they receive no recognition when they have to undertake such duties on instruction from a principal. We would prefer to see a much stronger policy from the Department on this issue.
The use of isolation rooms for students exhibiting symptoms will without doubt be problematic. Examples are now emerging of schools having simply no space for such a facility. In one instance the isolation area in a school consists of a small Perspex partition hanging from the ceiling in a school secretary's office. Difficulties are also apparent in the supervision of students awaiting collection by parents where SNAs may routinely be asked to provide this supervision, taking them away from their allocated students. We suggest that these arrangements are reviewed to ensure that students with additional care needs are not denied access to their SNAs.
The reopening of our schools is of critical importance to the well-being of students, families and our society as a whole. The efforts made by staff across the country to ensure our schools are ready to welcome back students is an example of the public service at its best and it should be recognised accordingly.
That concludes our opening statement. We thank the committee for the opportunity to meet and discuss these issues.
I thank Mr. Pike and all the other witnesses for coming. I was just thinking that there are very few people in Ireland who do not have a strong personal interest in this going well: children, parents, grandparents, teachers, SNAs and employers. The closure of schools has been deeply disruptive, and we are very glad to have the witnesses here in such a timely way. We will move on to the members. Fine Gael and Deputy Colm Burke are first.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions this morning and for all the work done over the past six months. I think it is very much appreciated by everyone, in particular parents and students.
Some schools have now reopened. Has there been feedback yet as regards any substantial problems arising now of which we need to be aware? Even before schools reopened, perhaps there were particular issues arising that were not being dealt with in a timely manner. The representatives of the various unions might provide an outline of that. What were the major issues that schools were identifying and on which they felt they were not getting support?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
The critical issue - it is not in every school but is arising in some schools - is space and the capacity to achieve social distancing. This varies from school to school. It is an issue particularly in schools where the premises are somewhat older and the corridors are narrower or the classrooms smaller. We have had contact from some members in schools where it is quite a substantial issue and we and our teachers on the ground have had to intervene to insist that arrangements change and are improved on. It is early days but that is the more substantial aspect of it.
We had other issues initially but we feel they will be addressed as time goes on. The Deputy will be aware that there was controversy early on about large congregations in schools, not only of students but also for staff meetings. Some staff returned to school and were expected to go into sports halls. One example was rather surprising because the number involved was 84. Two or three more of them were in a premises in Clifden, and it was bizarre that in the context of all the controversy that that attracted, teachers were being invited to go into sports halls in those kinds of numbers. We intervened, the Department, to be fair, was helpful and schools have now been told that the likes of that are unacceptable and that school staff meetings need to be held remotely. We have had teething problems, particularly around the issues of congregated settings and space.
I will go back to the issue of additional staff who have been taken on in schools. Have the witnesses any indication of the total number of additional staff taken on?
Do we still have some schools where they feel they are still under pressure? Classes are obviously going to be smaller, therefore more staff will be needed including more support staff as well. Have we any indications about how schools are managing with sourcing staff and getting them in a timely manner?
Ms Mary Magner:
In the primary sector we certainly have issues with that. While we welcome the supply panels, there are some schools that are not covered, that are not having adequate substitution. We have identified that there may be an issue in Dublin and in the larger urban areas with getting substitutes for schools. As to the teething problems, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the large classes that we have to deal with and members are quite angry about it. It was practically impossible to realise social distancing in some schools where there was not adequate space. As such there was an immediate call to reduce class sizes in line with our European counterparts and our members are rightly angry and anxious that their health, safety and well-being and that of their pupils is being compromised by the larger class sizes in overcrowded classrooms around the country.
On the matter of substitute teachers in larger urban areas, has the Department indicated to the INTO any practical steps that are going to be taken to deal with this issue? Has a timeline been set down for meeting that challenge?
Mr. John Boyle:
I am speaking about the the primary school sector as it is somewhat different at post-primary level. For many years we have been looking for a nationwide supply panel scheme, as our president, Ms Magner, has just alluded to. As of yesterday, these supply panels will be in 101 areas. This is a massive increase on last year when there were only six supply panels. We think it will cover in the region of 2,000 schools. That leaves 1,250 not covered by the scheme.
Other measures have been put in place which we have welcomed. Teachers who are job-sharing can now work nine days out of ten in their own schools. Many teachers have taken career breaks so that they could move closer to home and now that they are closer to home they can work for the whole year as a substitute. What we are really concerned about is the fact that young teachers cannot afford to live in the big urban areas due to pay inequality and the massive cost of rents, which have not really decreased very much during the pandemic. These young teachers will vote with their feet and will not go to the cities. In these instances, in an area like Dublin 15, for example, we have in excess of 1,200 primary school teachers and as of yesterday we have two supply panels there which are not covering all the schools. We have six teachers who are supposed to be looking after up to 700 teachers, some of whom may have to be absent for up to two weeks to self-isolate. As such it is maybe a bit early yet to say for sure but we will be demanding that that scheme be kept under review because as we get into the winter and the flu season, if more people are absent we are going to have to ensure we have cover for them. We need to ensure that what Mr. Pike is concerned about for his members will not be happening, namely that those who are not qualified to teach and have other duties to be doing, important duties around special education, will not be asked to step in to cover classes.
With the largest class sizes in Europe, the bottom line for us is that we cannot have classes split among the remaining teachers because that totally goes against the whole premise of keeping people safe.
Can I just ask one more question about fast-tracking of testing? My understanding was that the Department had agreed to the fast-tracking of tests for teachers and school staff. What is the witnesses' understanding of that? My understanding was that this was to be put in place.
Ms Ann Piggott:
I did read that this was going to be happening. I suppose it has not been applicable yet. It is to be between 24 and 48 hours. If one thinks about 48 hours, it will still take another day to tell people in schools so that is still quite a long time. I read that in England people were being tested within an hour. I know that that is not possible. We need it to be as fast as possible. The whole issue of teacher supply will be crucial then. If one student in one class in a secondary school becomes ill, the six teachers they have had all day might also be off work.
Some 1,080 teachers were promised. When shared between 723 second level schools, that is not a lot. It is an average of 1.5 teachers per school. That will not be enough. During the week, I heard about a school in which there are 32 pupils in every junior class. I presume there are more schools in the same position. That is not acceptable by any standard. There will also be a teacher and, perhaps, a special needs assistant, SNA, in the same classroom. These rooms are totally overcrowded. No social distancing whatsoever is taking place. Schools are greatly concerned about these matters.
I gave Deputy Colm Burke a little extra time so I will take it off his Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Durkan, later if that is okay with Deputy Durkan. I call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, who has seven and a half minutes.
I welcome all our guests this morning. We appreciate their input in getting schools back to work this week and last week. I spent 15 years teaching in five different schools. I have kept in touch with many of my colleagues from that time, including both teachers and management. There is a lot of concern out there. People are genuinely happy to be back and kids are happy to be back with their friends but there is a degree of nervousness. It is important that we are hear about the concerns of staff and students from the unions this morning.
I have a question for the representatives of the three teaching unions. Do they have an estimate of the number of their members, at both primary and secondary level, who are considered to have a serious underlying condition? How many such staff members have been excused from the physical workplace so far? How many of those whose requests to work from home were turned down are attempting to appeal that decision?
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
We do not have exact figures in that regard. We have been contacted by many people whose medical advisers have said they are at very high risk. That is why we sought an appeal process last week. The Minister responded to that. We hope they will work through that appeals process and we will have a clear picture of how many people are in the very high-risk category. Such people will be assigned to teach students who are also at very high risk at home.
One of the bigger problems, which I tried to mention earlier, is that there is a lack of teachers for certain subject areas at second level. Recruitment is proving very difficult. In a month's time, delayed retirements will hit the second level system. We will not have the teachers to replace those retiring. There will, therefore, be a massive shortage of teachers in the field and only a small number of teachers who are out of the field will be used to replace them. As a result of the number of teachers to be clearly identified as being at very high risk over the coming weeks and who will not be able to teach in their schools and the coming retirements, we believe there will be a chronic shortage of teachers in some second level schools. I agree with my colleagues in the INTO that it is more than likely that this problem will be worst in urban areas, especially Dublin.
Mr. John Boyle:
With regard to primary schools, we only got this more robust appeals mechanism on Friday evening. Some schools had already opened by then. This was nearly a month after such a mechanism was sought. That was regrettable. We have received approximately 600 email queries per week from members since March but, as we have got closer to reopening, many members needed contact by telephone rather than email because they had sensitive stories to tell. In some instances, four or five different consultants had advised these people not to go back to the school building. The occupational health service, however, set a very high bar, which had been determined by Government. People who met the conditions to be considered at very high risk would not have been going into the school even before the pandemic. These people needed a lot of tender care from the union. Our officials spent up to an hour on the phone with each individual.
It will become very clear in the coming weeks that there is a significant number of such staff members. There is also a great number of teachers who are expecting babies and whose GPs and doctors are very concerned about their return to the workplace. The danger is that, if the appeal mechanism does not work properly, many staff will be declared sick by their GPs or consultants and will not return to school.
In the case of a school that has multiple absentees, even the supply panels with which we are so delighted will be unable to cover the gaps.
The representatives of the primary sector have spoken about the supply panels. Could the representatives of the secondary sector give an estimate of the shortfall of teachers, particularly in light of what Mr. Boyle has just said about teachers, or family members of teachers, suffering from serious illnesses? There is also the fact that some women will possibly go out on maternity leave. Is there any idea of the estimated shortfall of teachers at secondary level?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
We do not know exact numbers and I doubt if anybody has collated those. We are hearing that schools that have advertised positions have received very few applicants with none in some cases. That situation will only be exacerbated, as my colleague said, in the context of the provisions of the public service stability agreement, PSSA, and the likelihood of a considerable number of retirements in October. It is, therefore, something we will watch carefully in the weeks to come but the portents are not good. We are hearing anecdotally that interviews are taking place but there are very few applicants for the available jobs. Some people have told us that they have not received any applications for jobs, particularly in pinch areas such as languages and practical subjects. That situation can only get worse in the context of illnesses and retirements that are in line.
Ms Ann Piggott:
One seldom sees many jobs advertised at this time of the school year. That there are several jobs currently advertised shows the trouble that there will be for schools.
On the question of teachers who are high risk, we are getting heartbreaking letters and phone calls. It does not apply to many teachers but there are some with very serious conditions, who have had cancer and are missing lungs or who have asthma and multiple medical problems. They are very much in danger should they go into schools.
We are not talking about a lot of people. Numbers in one region in Germany suggest that 400 out of 13,000 would be high risk and very high-risk teachers. A lot of high-risk teachers want to be in the classroom and are fit for work but there are some cases where teachers' lives will be in severe danger if they go into classrooms.
An estimated 6,000 registered teachers are members of the Teaching Council but are not currently teaching. I realise that I am seeking specifics about numbers and percentages but have our guests even anecdotal evidence as to how many of that panel of 6,000 who have not taught in the past year will return to teaching?
Mr. John Boyle:
I regret to tell the Deputy that the figure he has mentioned, while true, is exaggerated. That number includes all of the teachers approached by the former Minister, Deputy McHugh, in Dubai in an attempt to attract them back to Ireland. Some of those people have kept up their registration because it is easier to keep it up and pay the €65 fee rather than allow it to lapse. Those teachers are in Dubai because of pay inequality in Ireland. Despite all the measures that we have put in place to try to attract people back here with good jobs, many of our best and brightest will remain abroad as long as pay inequality persists.
There are, of course, qualified teachers in Ireland who may have gone into other walks of life and may be willing to come back and help out on a day-to-day basis with substitution but I doubt that there are 6,000 across the primary and secondary sectors who are readily available. Many of those people are just keeping up their registration because it is easier to do that than allow it to lapse.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
The situation is the same at secondary level. We have an awful lot of people who are trained in specific subjects and have transferable skills such as languages or qualifications in physics and chemistry. Those people can transfer into the main body of employment and are no longer available to teach, although they may maintain their registration because it only costs €65 per year and will give them options in the future. Those people do not want to allow that registration to lapse and remove those future options. I agree with what Mr. Boyle said. I do not believe there are 6,000 of those kinds of people available.
Go raibh maith agat to all of our guests for being here today. I thank them for their work and that of the members of their unions in the past couple of weeks because I know the effort has been phenomenal and major sacrifices have been made for the benefit of the children of this country.
I think I speak for many people when I say that we are grateful. Perhaps it is time for those media commentators who tried to castigate school staff to reflect on their some of their comments now that the reopening of schools has been achieved. Now that schools are open, it will be as much of a challenge to keep them that way.
A number of points have been identified through our guests' various statements. Rapid priority testing is essential, as are ensuring adequate cover for the substitution of staff and tackling oversized classes. In the context of cover, we must ensure that parents are not financially punished for keeping their children out of school. That is essential to making sure that the reopening of schools is sustainable.
I will direct my first question to the INTO. It relates to the entire process concerning Medmark and high-risk members of staff. I will raise the issue of high-risk students with the Minister later. I understand that there has been some movement with the process relating to staff and that there is an appeals process. My concern is whether the process is adequately independent and whether there will be a fresh look at existing evidence and, perhaps, a reinterpretation of it rather than simply requesting new evidence. There is significant concern in that regard. "High-risk" is a very broad term for a category that seems to take in everything from mild asthma to people with leukaemia and those at risk of liver failure. Many individuals are concerned, and rightly so. How confident can we be that whatever appeals mechanism exists will be adequately independent and will ensure that members of staff are safe?
Ms Mary Magner:
I thank the Deputy for his understanding of what it is like on the ground. He obviously has a clear insight into the challenges that face us in primary schools. There is no doubt that it has been a very trying summer for school leaders and school principals. We welcome the Deputy's comments.
We had concerns in respect of Medmark, the online health service, and, as the general secretary has already alluded to, the bar was set high for our very high-risk teaching colleagues. We wrote to the Minister and the Taoiseach in that regard to get a review process for Medmark. Thankfully, that is in place and teachers can appeal the decision of Medmark. They can submit their doctor's opinion and consultants' reports and seek a fast review. We do not have figures in respect of the review process because, as has been outlined already, it came out a bit late, towards the start of the school year. We await the outcome. It is absolutely imperative that the health of very high-risk teachers is not put in jeopardy by having to attend school.
I thank Ms Magner. I take it that we will have to wait to see whether the process is adequate. The message I hear is that it is something that needs to be kept under review.
My next question is for Mr. Pike of Fórsa. I welcome the fact that representatives from Fórsa are present. It is regrettable that they were not before the committee previously, particularly as that the staff Fórsa represents are extremely important. SNAs will be concerned about how the inclusion model will work and the implications that will have for the children with whom they work. Does Fórsa have a view on how the inclusion model can be preserved in some way or other? I am aware that there are restrictions on a child being able to move from the unit to the mainstream and vice versaand decisions are being made by schools in that regard. Does Fórsa have a view on how the process moves forward or how it can be preserved?
Mr. Andy Pike:
The schools inclusion model is being piloted in approximately 75 schools in south Dublin and Kildare. The pilot has a little way to go before it is evaluated. The situation with Covid-19 may make that evaluation a little bit more difficult but we see no reason that the essential provision of additional therapy supports cannot continue to be targeted at those students who would benefit from same. The onset of the pandemic delayed the extension of the schools inclusion model beyond those 75 schools. What we have been left with is a decision to freeze mainstream SNA allocations this year.
That will present problems for schools being able to deploy staff to meet the needs of children who are presenting with additional care needs in the absence of a formal assessment by the NCSE. This front-loading approach is very new. We anticipate some problems whereby SNAs who had previously been allocated to specific students may be asked to work more generally with students who are assessed as having additional care needs. It is very early days. At the moment, SNAs are focusing more on how to keep students engaged, ensuring they are settling in following the return to schools and making up for some of the deficits in the Department's provision of advice on basic things like carrying out intimate care and infection control.
We will wait to see the evaluation on the school inclusion model, which is something Fórsa would support.
Mr. Pike has made a very important point. Many issues relating to special education needs are still to be clarified, one of which relates to face coverings. I have a question for the representatives of the TUI on face coverings. Principals who have contacted me are concerned that it is not clear what evidence they should rely on where a child is seeking exemption. There are many justified exemptions, but the principals were not clear as to what they should rely upon and in what circumstances they should allow a child not to wear a mask. Does the TUI believe that needs to be clarified?
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
We are expecting more clarification from the Department. We have continually raised the contradictory use of language in some of the documents, such as face coverings, soft coverings and face masks. We have advised our members that a face covering is a mask. As the Minister has said a mask is required just as people are used to using them in shops. It covers the mouth and nose and should be worn within the 2 m because in most classes they are within the 2 m distance but cannot go within 1 m. In rare cases, such as SNAs or SEN teachers, individuals will wear a medical grade mask within the 1 m distance. That absolutely needs to be clarified. If someone cannot wear a mask for medical reasons, a certified medical reason should be presented to the school and the school can make alternative arrangements. For example, using a visor and maintaining 2 m distance could be set up in a classroom. However, if the visor is also not possible, we would be back into physical distancing because we need to keep everybody safe: the student who cannot wear a mask or the teacher who cannot wear a mask because of a medical reason. Then it is down to physical distancing. The other priorities of hand washing etc. must also be maintained.
The ASTI has expressed a number of concerns about some of the precautions that need to be taken on an ongoing basis. Parents are concerned that it is not clear that every child in a class will be treated as a close contact even though that is what ECDC guidelines require. Is the ASTI concerned that that is the case? Should every child in a class be treated as a close contact?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
The ASTI members are not medical professionals and therefore we are guided by the medical professionals. Last week, when the report that I mentioned earlier in my contribution was issued, immediately after the package was played on "Prime Time", Professor Luke O'Neill from Trinity College was interviewed and he appeared to have entirely contrary views in respect of some aspects of that day's report. The system needs clarity. I am not qualified to answer the Deputy's question definitively, but we need definitive answers. Unfortunately, they have not been forthcoming.
There has been confusion in many schools on mask wearing, as the Deputy mentioned in his question to the TUI. On a range of medical issues, there is an element of confusion. There is an element of silence; it is difficult to get answers. The experts need to sit down with us - the practitioners - and the Department of Education and Skills to provide clarity on the questions I mentioned earlier.
I will not list them off again; I listed them off earlier, regarding things like the use of Perspex in schools or exactly whether, where and when masks should be used. For instance, there are jurisdictions in which masks are now mandatory in corridors. There needs to be a clearer discussion on all these questions and thus far we have been struggling to get answers to some of our key questions.
I thank Mr. Christie. I think my time is up but as a final point - I do not require a response - it is crazy that so many schools do not have access to hot water. That needs to be addressed urgently.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and statements. I am sorry but I am used to standing up in the Seanad Chamber, where Members all stood up to speak. The real stand-out line for me is from Fórsa, which is that it can state to the committee that a significant number of staff today are providing personal care to students without adequate PPE. Have we learned nothing from the nursing homes, where we sent in care assistants to look after elderly and vulnerable people with Covid-19? Have we learned nothing? It is an absolutely shocking statement that SNAs are going in to look after the most vulnerable students without any PPE. It must be investigated as a matter of urgency. My first question to each of the trade union representatives, because many serious questions have been raised here today, is how often he or she is meeting the Ministers. Are they meeting the Ministers, Deputies Foley and Harris, on a regular basis to address some of these issues? I am quite alarmed that meetings to discuss such serious issues have been refused. Perhaps Fórsa could answer first.
Mr. Andy Pike:
Fórsa has met the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion but our main engagement is with senior Department officials and that is the norm across the Civil Service. The arrangements for service provision and in industrial relations more generally are not conducted through contact between unions and Ministers. When we write to the Minister, she always responds. It is not the case that we feel we are being ignored. The week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day contact is with senior officials from the Department of Education and Skills. On the issue of face masks, there is some confusion in respect of face coverings, which people wear to ensure they are not passing on anything to anyone else; and medical-grade face masks. They are very cheap but are designed to the protect the wearer and to ensure there is a good degree of protection against droplet and aerosol spread. One difficulty we have had with the Department is a reluctance on its part to issue clear advice. We issued the advice ourselves, based on what the HSE recommends for staff providing personal care, that is, washing and changing of residents in nursing homes, and for those providing care in domestic or home settings. It is very straightforward, namely, wear a face mask and wear a visor to protect one's eyes from splashes. There are specific requirements around waste disposal. If one has been washing or changing someone, any waste materials need to be bagged for 72 hours before they are put into general waste. These are all common-sense, straightforward non-cost increasing issues. We have found the Department to be very reluctant to address what one might call the specifics of providing care to students who have hygiene needs. As regards PPE, maybe the term "PPE" is a bit frightening or disconcerting for some in the school sector but it is the basic provision of a face mask, gloves and an apron. When people are being told to buy such equipment themselves or that the Department of Education and Skills guidance states that schools may wish to consider if they wish to provide this equipment for staff, we then have to say that the duty of care is not being maintained. They can do a lot better than this. We met the Department yesterday on this-----
Mr. Andy Pike:
It was about the sixth time that we had met the Department and asked it to do this. It has now agreed to send out further advice to schools on the basics of what needs to be provided and what needs to be done to ensure that students and staff are safe, when, for instance, a student needs to change his or her clothes or there is a procedure to be carried out.
It has agreed to do that but we have not yet seen the draft. If it sends out that advice, that should improve things.
Is the Department aware that there are cases where one bus services several different schools, including those with special needs students, who have not been asked to wear face coverings? Based on my information from teachers, it would be helpful if people, including young people with special needs, were asked to wear face coverings unless they had a medical reason not to do so. I do not think that would be a complicated process. If a parent says there is a reason that the child cannot wear a face covering, that should be adequate but the lack of clarity is bringing ambiguity to cases of pupils travelling on buses. My fear is that there will not only be one classroom or school shut down but that several schools in an area serviced by a single bus will be shut down at one time.
Does any witness foresee circumstances in which teachers will have to withdraw from the classroom?
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
While we have heard worrying reports, we have made clear that in any circumstances where the public health advice is not followed, we stand ready to intervene to protect our members. We have made it absolutely clear that there cannot be any eccentric local interpretations of the measures that are very clear concerning physical distancing, the wearing of face masks and so forth.
On the wearing of face masks-----
I thank our guests, the organisations and their members for grappling with what must have been very difficult circumstances in recent months. We in the Oireachtas owe them a debt of gratitude, as do the Irish public.
I would like to hear the witnesses' positions on the issue of leave provisions and whether Covid-19 quarantine periods will be counted against sick leave entitlements in following years. Perhaps Mr. Boyle and Mr. Christie will give me their thoughts on that.
Mr. John Boyle:
We have concerns about cases where a teacher who is absent and self-isolating, thankfully for him or her, tests negative. If that were to recur a number of times in a year, since the public service sick leave scheme was quartered during the previous recession, it would not take long to result in the teacher being on half pay or potentially no pay due to Covid-19. That is something we simply would not tolerate. At the moment, we are keeping a watching brief. Covid leave is available to those who have tested positive or who are deemed to have to self-isolate but the difficulty may arise in the case of teachers who were off work for a short number of days because were that to happen regularly throughout the year, the number of absences would accumulate.
We are also worried, as I mentioned earlier, about those teachers who are pregnant and whose medical practitioners recommend that they not return to work. We have asked for the guidance of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, to be reviewed. We heard some evidence from Dr. Kevin Kelleher of the National Public Health Emergency Team at the stakeholders' meeting yesterday that there is an ongoing review of that guidance. We were promised that it would be reviewed and we engaged with the process throughout the summer in the expectation that we would see the colour of that review. We have heard that the review is ongoing but we have not seen any paper evidence of that. Moving forward into September, we will have to have a detailed review. Given that the World Health Organization and European experts are at variance with the Irish experts, there definitely will have to be some joined-up thinking about this.
As schools continue throughout the winter with the flu season, we cannot have a scenario where workers are penalised in their pay because there has been a pandemic. Hopefully, it will not occur too often, but it is something we are watching closely.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
Like our colleagues in the INTO, we will, to some extent, wait and see how Covid-19 leave transpires, both nationally and for individual members. Returning to the point concerning vulnerable workers - teachers in our case - we welcome the appeal mechanism regarding teachers in the high-risk category who feel they should be in the very high-risk category, in which case they would work remotely. However, in respect of the review of the categorisation of high risk and the illnesses that fall within that category, we are hearing from our members that their medical professionals are telling them that the list of illnesses in the high-risk category is far too broad and certain conditions should not be on that list but on the very high-risk list. This is the big difficulty we have with that whole issue.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Like the wider economy, we do not want people to run out of sick leave because they have had to change the way they deal with things, and then maybe end up feeling they have to come to work. As Mr. Boyle said earlier, sick leave entitlements were quartered during the last recession and that means sick leave is precious. We have many people who are worried and anxious and are using ordinary sick leave rather than Covid, and burning it because of this anxiety and nervousness. That is especially the case when they see the after-effects of Covid. Even those who are categorised as high risk or lower than high risk are nervous about returning to the classroom. Classrooms are crowded places.
We have young adults in second level. The media have been reporting recently, and the figures seem to back this up, that the number of people testing positive in the younger age group is rising rapidly. These reports are creating anxiety which I believe will force staff to use sick leave. We will then have the problem we outlined earlier because we do not have staff to support or replace these teachers and to meet the educational needs of students in schools. In second level, it is certainly an issue with respect to the subject-specific teachers who are needed if a teacher goes out on sick leave. If the only physics teacher in a school goes out sick, it will not be possible to get a replacement. That is absolutely certain.
I thank the witnesses for their work and the work of their members. Education has suffered from what I consider to be poor leadership at Government level in the months of this crisis. However, trade union members in schools have done an amazing job in maintaining a thread of calm, first by finishing the previous school year and then through the leaving certificate and into the period of reopening schools. That cannot be stated often enough.
The first point I would like to raise is for the representatives of the ASTI. It concerns the statistic that 25% of schools, according to principals, do not have hot water in their toilet facilities. This is an astounding statistic given that the earliest public health advice we received, which has been a common and strong thread until now, is that we need to wash our hands regularly with warm water. That was the first advice we were all given. What are the reasons behind this statistic? Why are a quarter of our schools without hot water? What representations have been made to the Minister and her predecessor to try to rectify that deficiency in advance of this school year commencing?
Ms Ann Piggott:
In addition to 25% of our schools not having hot water, there are other startling statistics, including that 84% of schools have poor ventilation systems. Our schools are also totally overcrowded. For example, a school built for 450 students may now have 600 or more students. That is a problem, so much so that in schools that have been reconfigured, teachers do not have a room in which to hold staff meetings.
Staff are eating lunch in their cars and they are bringing everything with them in their cars because they do not have their own rooms anymore.
I want to refer to what Mr. Pike said about isolation rooms. There is no room for isolation areas. Some schools are using log cabins or converted and old shower rooms. The problem with that is that if more than one student is sick - and this will occur. In huge schools, one could have four students at the same time. One student might have Covid, one might have hay fever, one might have a cough and there may be somebody else who does not have his homework done and does not want to be in class. They cannot all be put in the same area. Isolation means just one. I am worried about that and glad that it was brought up.
We have discussed space. We constantly bring it up in meetings with the Department. We would like to meet the Minister on several issues.
Related to isolation rooms, it was brought to my attention that there is a school in south County Dublin that was attempting to construct an awning over an outdoor handwashing system they had, through work with the parents, put in during the summer. However, it was subject to planning permission and did not have a planning exemption as a piece of Covid infrastructure. Are ASTI members coming back with similar stories of isolation rooms or other structures they are trying to construct and are being stalled in doing so by onerous planning processes?
Ms Mary Magner:
In the primary sector, the stark reality of years of underinvestment is primary schools do not even have principal's offices, not to mind awnings outside the door providing facilities to wash hands. We have token cleaning services. Our capitation is less than a euro a day per pupil. It would not buy a cup of coffee in today's world. This is an accumulation of years of underinvestment in education. Hot water is an absolute luxury in schools. Toilets are an absolute luxury in schools, at times. Pupils have to share toilets. Multiple classes have to share toilets. There are not toilets in every room in classrooms. It is a huge issue. We recognise the need to seek planning but when there is an emergency and a pandemic in the country, it has to be fast-tracked.
I thank Ms Magner. I will finish with a comment for Mr. Boyle. He may not have time to respond to it. I am concerned by what he said on advice being given by medical practitioners to teachers who are pregnant about returning to work. We have raised this a number of times in this committee and Dr. Ronan Glynn said last week that pregnant women are not more susceptible to Covid than anyone else. It is concerning and I echo Mr. Boyle's calls for more clarity from medical professionals to ensure that any anxiety being caused for women who are pregnant and seeking to return to work, be it in schools or anywhere else, is diminished. I thank the witnesses and the Acting Chair.
I thank the Deputy. Deputy Devlin and I are familiar with that particular school and issue. It has been raised and a solution has been found. I thank Deputy Smith for highlighting it. I call Deputy Gannon, who has five minutes.
I will begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the work undertaken by the school education community, from school leaders and principals to teachers, SNAs and school secretaries. The work undertaken since the beginning of the pandemic has been nothing short of heroic. That should be acknowledged and it is lamentable that it has not been captured or highlighted in much of the public commentary to date.
I will list some of my questions and, hopefully, give the witnesses enough time to answer them. One of the most important aspects of the return to school is the morale of our school community. Any threats to that should be tackled immediately. One such threat is the issue that has emerged over the past couple of weeks related to the leaving certificate, namely, that the school rankings given out by the secondary school teachers will now be revealed to the students. I was not aware that was going to take place when it was announced in April. When did the secondary school unions become aware of that and what is the view of their members?
How has this frustration been related back to the Department? Is it something we can address before it becomes a bigger issue next week?
I have a question for Mr. Andy Pike on guidelines for SNAs and potential further supports for SNAs as we move forward in the Dáil term. I want to ask about the vagueness of the guidelines. I also want to touch on the use of face masks. The guidance for primary schools and special schools on PPE and the use of face masks by staff states that schools should consider the specific circumstances where the use of medical face masks may be more appropriate for staff, for example, where staff such as SNAs or school bus escorts need to be in close and continued proximity to students with intimate care needs. Is the vagueness of these guidelines a problem? If the guidelines simply stated that staff should wear the appropriate medical mask would it alleviate some of the arbitrary decisions that have been taken from school to school, which are placing many SNAs at greater risk?
Medmark has already been discussed but if there are outstanding issues the unions feel need to be clarified I ask them to feel free to take some of my time to do so. There are outstanding issues. Is there anything Medmark needs to change or adapt in its algorithm, particularly with regard to the newly announced review system?
I have a question specifically for the witnesses from the TUI. Their submitted document states that students with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be forgotten or left behind and that customised interventions and supports may be required to reintegrate them into school. Will the TUI witnesses speak a little about what exactly is meant by customised supports and innovations?
One of the stand-out parts of the ASTI presentation was that it is regrettable that those effectively making decisions on these matters refuse to meet representatives of those directly affected by them. That is an absolute shame. It is a travesty and should not be happening. Will the witnesses give voice to how these meetings have been requested and what the tangible implications are for ASTI members when they are rejected?
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
I will answer the question on the rankings provided by teachers as part of the calculated grades process. We had a clear understanding that the information, which is extraordinarily sensitive and could have serious implications for particularly vulnerable students, would only be revealed as part of an appeal process or a request for data. We were dismayed to hear differently and that it is being made available through a portal. We have made very strong representations on this because all members co-operated with something that was almost anathema to them, to put such rankings down on paper, and put down on paper the position of children they had supported and kept in school and whose morale and confidence they had boosted. We are very concerned about the correct treatment of the data. We have made very strong representations and we continue to do so. We have had meetings with the Department about it. There is ongoing discussion and we hope for a change in the approach. We have had numerous and very strong representations from members who feel incredibly strongly about this particular issue. I thank the Deputy for raising it.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
We have been associated with our colleagues in the TUI in jointly beating this drum with the Department. We expect to achieve resolution of this issue sooner rather than later and we are working hard on it. It came as a shock to us when the plans that have been made public were brought forward. Our members are certainly not happy about it and we are not happy about it. We will do something about it.
The Deputy asked a direct question about the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC. We sought a meeting with the HPSC and it declined to meet us. We wrote to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, more than a week ago and we have received no response, acknowledgement or reply.
Mr. Andy Pike:
The guidance on the use of face masks is very vague. It has been a long journey since the previous Minister for Education and Skills basically dismissed any concept or notion of using PPE in schools to where we are today. We still have another stage to go to make sure that staff in the schools sector have the same minimum level of protection when providing personal care as staff in the community health sector and the HSE have where the issues are more or less the same. It is not rocket science. They should be given face masks. They cost about 30 cent. They are readily available. People should be given some basic advice regarding infection control. Fórsa as a trade union has given our members detailed advice but, quite frankly, it is not our job to do that. It is something the Department should do.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I want to ask about high-risk teachers. It seems absolutely scandalous that teachers with significant underlying conditions are being compelled to go back to work in circumstances where their doctors or consultants are saying it is unsafe to do so. There does not seem to be any guarantee that this issue has been dealt with or that the likelihood of their being compelled to return will not arise. Ms Piggott was quoted in The Irish Times. She referred to one teacher who is battling acute leukaemia, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, anaemia and an autoimmune disorder and who was told to return to work after obtaining a risk assessment. In a letter, the individual in question wrote that he feels like a turkey waiting for Christmas. In regard to that case, does Ms Piggott know if the teacher is still being compelled to return to work or is there an appeals process? I wish her to confirm that she is aware of multiple cases where the advice of doctors or consultants has been overruled by a private company, Medmark, in the context of teachers being compelled to go back to work.
Ms Ann Piggott:
The case the Deputy mentioned is heartbreaking. When the person applied, he did so at a certain time, perhaps 7 p.m., and received a letter at 9.40 a.m. the following day telling him what category he fitted into. One could question what effort was made to consider the person's case. I do not think he was spoken to or met with. There was no Zoom consultation with the teacher involved. It may be the case that somebody looked up a list and saw that he was not in a high-risk category. I tried to contact the person yesterday or the day before, but I have not yet spoken to him. I will talk to him again.
I have heard of another particularly bad case. A teacher had a letter from her consultant but she was told to go to school. Since then, she has made new arrangements and will be working from home. Many teachers do not want to make this choice but they have to. There are important cases that need to be looked at carefully.
I thank Ms Piggott. I have a question for Mr. Gillespie. It seems that, at an individual level, coronavirus exposes and attacks underlying conditions, which relates to the previous question. It also does so at a societal level and exposes the very low levels of investment in our education system as a percentage of GDP, the very high pupil-teacher ratios and the lack of space in our schools. The pre-existing underinvestment in education has now been exposed and needs to be resolved.
Mr. Gillespie mentioned a number of schools where appropriate social distancing is not possible or is not taking place. Can he put a number or percentage on that? The point was made earlier about the Perspex screen in front of the Acting Chairperson. There is not necessarily Perspex in front of teachers. There is a basic point, namely, that it is absolutely unconscionable to ask teachers and students to go back to work and school in conditions which are less safe than those in which Deputies and Senators are working.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
I have heard from several schools - I cannot put an exact number on it because the information comes in on an area basis - where social distancing was worrying to our representatives.
The schools are going back in a staggered way, so we are not 100% sure how much movement has been made. Through the lead worker representatives in these schools, we have clearly set out a procedure to all our members to follow if they have concerns, and they are following it. We have had schools that have changed timetables to make sure they got 24 students into classrooms measuring 49 sq. m. Very big classes have been divided into smaller areas or have been taught through live streaming. If schools go through the 1:6 regime, they can solve this. As I said, we have seen very big schools, namely, those with 1,600 pupils, managing to do so. Where we receive a report that a school is not doing so, we tell it to get advice and call the Department's helpline, and then it should be able to do it. Sometimes it is because the school has not pushed the last bit to get there. We will not, however, allow our members to work in those schools where the basic precautions - such as physical distancing of in excess of 2 m, or between 1 m and 2 m when wearing masks - are not in place.
It is early days yet, and we may get more specific information. We certainly heard a lot in the first day or two from teachers worried about the way in which their classrooms were laid out. As Ms Magner stated, it was interesting that we had maps to lay out the classrooms in order that we could make sure we had 1 m social distancing in classrooms. We have actually had to give maps to schools to make sure we know how many students can go into classrooms of various sizes. Our classrooms are tiny. Across Europe, 30 students go into classrooms that are nearly 100 sq. m, and our biggest classrooms are 49 sq. m. Some of our newer buildings might contain classrooms that are up to 55 sq. m and we can put 24 students into those. In certain countries in Europe, they put 15 students into classrooms measuring nearly 100 sq. m.
I thank our guests for attending. I reiterate the point other members made, namely, that the country is very appreciative of the efforts of schools boards, teachers, managers and the unions in trying to get the schools reopened. Now that they are reopening, it is absolutely vital that we do everything possible to try to keep them open and functioning.
I wish to bring up a point that came up between the INTO and Fórsa. The INTO thanked the Department for its actions to date and stated that its members have adequate PPE, while Fórsa has highlighted that it feels its members do not. Perhaps we are talking about teacher groupings versus non-teacher groupings. Fórsa also mentioned the idea of medical masks for looking after children in intimate settings and so on. Could we get a clear distinction here? Is there a united front that could be agreed whereby we could say that the secondary school teachers at least feel they have adequate PPE and then, perhaps, isolate the fact that Fórsa may feel its members need to be treated differently or that the case it is putting forward must be highlighted? Could anybody shed some light on that matter?
Mr. John Boyle:
Could I clarify the position regarding our opening statement? We recognise that significant funding is put aside in schools in respect of sanitising and the purchase of PPE, but that does not necessarily translate into every member of staff having the benefit of that funding. For example, there is flexibility within the funding for the purchase of different types of masks. Our view from the beginning has been that if our members have any doubt about anything, whether returning to the workplace, having to self-isolate or what they have to wear, we advise that they wear whatever is most appropriate for them. For example, we have teachers who are in the exact same position as the people whom Fórsa and Mr. Pike represent, namely, SNAs. We have teachers who are looking after the intimate care needs of children with the assistance sometimes of SNAs, other times not because we may not have enough teachers or SNAs to look after special needs generally in primary. Then there is the matter of administering first aid - responsibility for which very often just falls upon the class teacher - in trying circumstances in playgrounds or classrooms. Our advice to our members and lead worker representatives is to demand that their boards of management provide what is available on the portal.
Nevertheless there will be differences with different workers and special schools. We are really worried about the special schools sector and we are also worried about the fact that in the special school sector there are children up to the age of 18, which came up earlier. We represent most of the members who teach there and there is not much distinction in the provision for those children on buses or in schools compared to the distinctions that are being made for students in the ordinary post-primary schools. There is a lack of clarity and that is why we have continuing stakeholder consultations and we need to get that clarity as soon as possible.
I thank Mr. Boyle. I wish to speak to two points. One is the digital divide that was highlighted earlier. The TUI in particular mentioned access to broadband. At the moment schools are providing laptops many students. Why does there have to an interactive element? If there is a difficulty with accessing the Internet for learning why not put programmes onto those laptops so students can work on the exercises at night at home and bring that work in the following day? I presume we are talking about kids who are in the following week and have it assessed, rather than saying that because we do not have broadband that this leads to discrimination. Surely there is a way of getting some of these programmes put onto the laptops where kids can work away regardless of whether broadband is available.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
A lot of students do not have laptops. At the end of last year, our research showed that the vast majority of students were depending on their phone. The only devices they had to access the Internet and whatever was being put up on the school website were their phones. The phones do not have the capacity to put up programmes, etc., so they were actually just using their phone to go onto the websites of the schools and trying then to translate that into the homework they were doing. It is not just about a lack of broadband; it is about a lack of devices in homes. Even if a household has broadband, they may not enough devices for all the school-going children to use at the same time within the hours in which people do their homework - between 4.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. It is not as simple as putting stuff onto the laptops, it is the fact of the lack of devices in homes and the other uses to which the devices that are available have to be put.
It is possible to purchase new small tablets for as little as €40 to €50 and surely schools, school management and the unions need to be looking at solutions here. It is impossible to believe that we are not going to have school closures over the course of the year and we need to be facilitating students. I have just one more thing-----
I thank the Acting Chairman. May I just add one final point on testing? I agree with the unions' postilions but there needs to be some random, mandatory testing at point of care implemented in schools and we should be looking at that.
I want to praise teachers, parents and indeed the children themselves who have really reacted positively to going back to back to school in these most difficult times. The happy families that are contacting me are probably best epitomised by a parent of a student who is going to St. Mary's parish primary school, Bryanstown in Drogheda. Last week there was a one-to-one between every parent and the teachers as to what was going to happen this week. The parents, the children and the teachers were very professional, the parents and the children feel safe and there are very clear guidelines. The professionalism of everyone involved is remarkable because this is not just a normal school year with the problems that happen in schools. This is a pandemic year and I want to praise everybody concerned.
There are a couple of points of concern I want to raise. I have a constituent who is a child with special needs and requires resources. The child has been medically assessed as having that need. The Department has turned it down and the child is now in school. Their parents and their medical people advise that that the child needs a full-time SNA and the Department has not given a date yet for that review in the school.
I ask that the unions campaign for and on behalf of children whose appeals have been delayed and whose education, therefore, has been significantly compromised. The happiness of such children and their parents and teachers is severely challenged.
The other issue I will raise relates to schools which have lost teachers. A school in my constituency, Rampark national school, had 180 students on assessment day last year but is now expected to have 170. The school has lost two teachers leading to an unacceptable increase in the number of students in some classes. I ask the unions to articulate the rights of students in these cases, particularly with regard to those with special needs and schools that have lost at least one teacher or, in some cases, two.
Ms Mary Magner:
I thank the Deputy for his comments and for his praise of teachers. We hope that such praise for our school leaders will lead to the return of their former remuneration package, which has now not been paid for more than ten years. We wait in anticipation following the Deputy's praise.
With regard to special educational needs, the INTO has been demanding resources for children with special educational needs for a very long time. This is not the first time the issues the Deputy has highlighted have come to our attention. We will continue to work in this regard.
The issue of overcrowding in classrooms is very easily solved. Class sizes must be reduced. Our pupil-teacher ratio is the highest in Europe at 25:1, while those of our counterparts in the European Union average 20:1. We and our colleague unions have spoken about the size of classrooms. This issue would be solved easily by reducing class sizes. If class sizes are reduced, much of this will be ameliorated and mitigated.
With respect, the point I am making is that the number of students in the school about which I am talking has actually reduced by ten and that the penalty it has suffered as a result is the loss of two teachers. That is not acceptable. I appreciate the points Ms Magner has made.
With regard to this issue, I have found it very hard to get officials to listen to some of these complaints, which are genuine and heartfelt. The children in the schools where this is happening are being penalised.
Mr. John Boyle:
On that point and that particular school, which is not the only school affected, this situation has only arisen because of the blunt instrument of the staffing schedule for primary schools. Under this schedule, one becomes a walking principal when the school gains four children. If the school then loses some of these children, it not only could end up losing its administrative deputy principal, who had been given 183 days to administer the school but will now only have 37, but it also suffers the double penalty of losing an additional classroom teacher. That could be very easily addressed in the budget. If this was to be part of budget considerations in this pandemic year, it could be backdated to this September with an appeals mechanism to allow such schools to not lose their teachers immediately. We now see the ridiculous scenario in which some of those schools that will lose a teacher in September 2020 will get that teacher, or even two teachers, back the following year if its enrolment increases. The Deputy's Government can certainly address this issue. It is something for which we have been calling for many years.
Of course our Government can address it but when I try to address this issue through the official channels - I am talking about civil servants - I cannot get anybody to listen. That is why I am saying the unions need to be more assertive. I will do my best. That is why I am raising the issue here. I need the unions to do so as well.
I thank the witnesses very much for their attendance this morning and for their opening remarks. I also praise the work of the unions in engaging with the Department over recent months. It has been challenging for everybody involved. More importantly, I thank the principals, deputy principals, boards of management and staff. I have been in contact with many and they have been moving furniture, measuring rooms and doing all sorts of other things in advance of the reopening of schools in recent days, which is exceptionally welcome.
With regard to engagement by the unions with the Department since July in respect of the reopening of schools, how much engagement over how many days has each of those present today had with the Department to date? I do not mind who goes first.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I did not count the number of engagements but contact has been extensive. Meetings have occurred weekly, sometimes biweekly, where issues have been addressed. Our complaints are not about the level of engagement from the Department but relate to the more fundamental aspects of the plans that are in place, as I set out in my opening statement.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Since 27 July and the publication of the roadmap, we have engaged with the Department numerous times per week, as my colleague from the ASTI said. More than that, the volume of documentation that has been changing hands and in which we have been putting our points to the Department, outlining what we believe is required for the safe reopening of schools, has been colossal. People have been working into the small hours of the night to read documents, make comments on them and send them back to the Department. It has been a massive job of integration and a considerable volume of documentation has arrived into schools. What has happened in a short time is mind-boggling.
As I said in my opening submission, schools have changed beyond belief since 12 March. Second level schools have been pared back to the paint to fit as many students into classrooms as possible. That has taken an effect on teachers who will return to classrooms where resources that have been there for 30 years or more are either in a skip or in a metal container in the car park. That is hard for teachers and they have had to adapt quickly to a new way of doing things to benefit students. A lot of the good work and ways we were teaching, including group work and whatever, has now had to change and teachers have had to adapt.
We spoke earlier about examinations and our teaching staff at both primary and secondary levels deserve a H1 grade from me for the amount of work they have done to get ready and welcome back their students in very difficult times.
Mr. John Boyle:
On the primary side, we have had two official meetings with departmental representatives every week, starting well before July. In the week of 17 August, as we got closer to opening time, we had two official meetings and four unofficial or side meetings with different stakeholders.
We are well paid in our positions. We worked through our annual leave and on the bank holiday Monday to facilitate the Department with responses to documents. I must give a shout out to the school principals in the primary sector. I do not know if it is well known that those principal teachers in the smaller, one, two, three, four and five-teacher schools who worked all through the summer received a payment before tax of €180 per week, not per day. There are 1,700 such principals and they have been waiting for a payment of an additional €60 per week for 13 years now.
I was proud to represent 44,000 teachers during the pandemic as we negotiated the safe reopening of schools. They are the people who put on the green jersey and need to be looked after. The public servants of Ireland have done mammoth work in the past six months and we must make sure that we remember that when we enter negotiations on the next pay deal.
Mr. John Boyle:
The Department introduced a new initiative a number of years ago. It has had some amount of them over the past number of years but one initiative that proved challenging for schools intended to move from an evaluation model whereby an external evaluator, school inspector or team thereof came into a school to a situation where the schools themselves were forced to do a lot more self-evaluation so that when the inspectors arrived, much of the homework had been done for them. In a submission to the Department in early May, we had a number of key requests. The focus must be on the well-being of staff, students and parents in this time of the pandemic. We felt that this was a time to lay those initiatives aside for one year and were delighted when the Department agreed that there would be no further school self-evaluation. A school may, of course, evaluate how it is responding to the pandemic. I hope schools do that and let us know quickly if they need further resources so that we can negotiate with the Department.
New initiatives, unnecessary paperwork and inspections put undue pressure on everybody in the community. That cannot happen at this time.
The whole focus here is to get people back safely and to get them back into the groove of teaching and learning, as it were. That cannot happen under the pressure of inspections or school self-evaluation.
I thank all of the witnesses for coming in and giving of their time. Mention was made of school principals. I have seen this with my sister who has put her heart and soul into getting her school up and running and reopened safely. It is not just principals, although they are of course in a leadership position, but the whole school community. It is everybody, from parents, volunteers, teachers and SNAs to escorts, caretakers, secretaries and all the others who have put their heart and soul into this. That has been very evident.
I am sure the irony of a Government Deputy urging the unions to act on behalf of children with special needs will not be lost on the witnesses. It was certainly not lost on me, although this is no laughing matter.
I will speak briefly about children with special educational needs and those with additional needs who require additional support to get into school. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work for these children. I will ask Mr. Pike specifically about bus escorts. I realise these are a small part of the workforce but they are, nonetheless, an extremely important piece of the jigsaw in getting children to school. What arrangements are in place to protect bus escorts? I would not be so facile as to compare Covid to trampolining or anything else, but as has been said a million times, nothing we do is completely without risk. We know that but it is the job of the Department to minimise the risk for workers. What arrangements are in place for bus escorts? What arrangements would Mr. Pike like to see put in place to ensure the greatest possible level of safety for his members?
Mr. Andy Pike:
The only arrangements in place are those that the transport providers can manage. If social distancing were possible in every instance, the situation would be better, but it is not. School transport is still often quite cramped. Very often children with additional care needs are not able to wear face masks because it can be anxiety provoking and extremely distressing for them to be forced to wear a face covering. As a result, many of them will not do so.
In terms of school transport, if fewer students are using a vehicle, that vehicle may have to make two journeys. This means bus escorts may be within the confines of a cramped vehicle for longer than would have been the case before schools closed. The protections available to bus escorts are just the medical grade face mask. That is all. There is a case for saying that the higher grade of face mask, N95, should be provided for bus escorts and staff who are in the vicinity of aerosol producing devices such as suctioning tracheostomy tubes or other procedures that may take place in special schools. However, I am afraid only the minimum - the medical grade face mask - is available and there are problems accessing even that basic form of PPE. Bus escorts are making sure children hand sanitise before they board buses and when they get off. The Department could do much more in terms of giving very clear advice on how to stay safe in circumstances where something happens on a journey and a bus escort has to assist a student with hygiene needs. We hope it will do so in the next couple of days.
Mr. Andy Pike:
That is correct. Following a meeting yesterday, we think the penny has finally dropped that if the Department does not want widespread problems in this area and other aspects of work in schools, it will have to reinforce and strengthen its advice and ensure the provision of this equipment is not seen as an option but is mandatory for school employers.
In his submission, Mr. Pike describes the isolation rooms for students exhibiting symptoms as problematic.
This will be an issue in all the schools because our classrooms are the most overcrowded, ironically enough as a direct result of Government policy, and we have Government Deputies coming in to give out about their own policy.
I have a question on isolating for all our contributors. How many schools are prepared and have sufficient isolation facilities in place? Are changes required? We all saw the picture of the shed.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Older, smaller second level schools are having difficulties getting space for these isolation units. The other schools having difficulties are the expanding schools in Dublin which are at capacity because of the demographic increase. They are finding it hard to get space for the isolation rooms.
I thank the witnesses for coming and giving us their time. I congratulate them on the energy and effort that has gone into the reorganisation of activities in schools. I have one general question to them all. While we are still in the early stages, from the experience so far what is the weakest link in the delivery of the educational services and the prevention of an outbreak of the virus in a particular area at the same time? Is it in respect of school transport, class sizes, isolation areas or teachers possibly having to isolate? Is it possible to address these issues and continue to deliver educational services effectively?
Mr. Andy Pike:
In Fórsa's view testing would cover many of the gaps and weaknesses. If routine testing was available on a very regular basis, it would provide more certainty. We think there is a case for considering temperature checks for sure. Given the problems with school transport and other issues, we believe regular testing would bring more certainty and confidence that schools can remain open.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Keeping Covid-19 out of schools is what will keep schools open. That means emphasising maintaining physical distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene in schools. The resources to do that need to be supplied to the schools. If schools are having difficulty they need to talk to the Department and get the resources. If we are contacted by our members, we will be very quick to point out schools that are not doing those things. Keeping Covid-19 out will include maintaining teachers in the school. It comes back to the rapid testing Mr. Pike just mentioned.
Because of the requirement to track and trace people with symptoms, the lack of qualified substitute teachers will be an increasing problem as we move into the winter season. People who in the past might have gone to school with sniffles or whatever will not be able to go because they would create anxiety among the high-risk people in schools as we mentioned earlier.
Mr. Martin Marjoram:
We are working with the most crowded classrooms as has been pointed out. We are battling this on the back of several years of underinvestment. That is actually the biggest challenge. That is the common thread running through nearly all the problems we mentioned today.
Before Covid-19 we were already struggling with the system we have. As somebody said when asked for directions in the countryside, one would not start from here. Similarly, one would not have started with the most overcrowded classrooms, the worst pupil-teacher ratios, a demoralised teaching force and a recruitment crisis caused by unequal pay. Those problems need to be fixed and we also need ongoing monitoring of what has been put in place to date. The committee needs to meet on this issue again in a little while because these are still early days and we are only starting to piece together the picture of where the difficulties lie. We will obviously continue to make representations on those difficulties but this is a picture that will become clearer over time. The committee should also meet again to discuss the other areas of education in which we operate, namely, higher education and further education, because we have equally strong concerns about reopening in those settings.
Mr. John Boyle:
On the primary sector, at the end of the month we will be able to do a survey to find out how many primary school children were self-isolating for two weeks. We already have one class doing so. If only 15 children were in a class, as is the case in Luxembourg, Lithuania and various other countries, not as many children would lose out on their education in the classroom. However, we have up to 35 children in a class. Notwithstanding what Government spokespersons have been saying and what some members of Government parties have said today, we need action on class sizes. If class sizes were reduced to European averages and there was a properly funded system in place to support remote learning in cases where a class must stay at home and children are self-isolating, we would be dealing with the pandemic in the same way our European counterparts are dealing with it. We want the children of Ireland to have the same opportunities as children elsewhere in Europe, even in a pandemic. Smaller class sizes are the way to go.
I will be brief. I appreciate the pressures of trying to confine a session to two hours. However, the two-hour time limit the committee has afforded itself is not what teachers or students are enjoying and it sets a bad example. I very much appreciate that this decision was not taken at the behest of the Acting Chairman or me. The Dáil will meet this afternoon in the Convention Centre, a huge glass palace. That, too, sets a poor example. I made that point before the Dáil rose in July and I still believe that to be the case.
We have seen many international studies, although perhaps fewer in Ireland, on the detrimental effect of students, particularly younger students, being out of classrooms for long periods. What are members of the teaching unions encountering now? For example, are third class students where teachers expect them to be in developmental and educational terms? Are sixth class students, third years, or fifth years in secondary schools where teachers would expect them to be and, if not, what measures are required to compensate for that?
Has the effect of the closure of schools been greater on a particular age cohort or on students from a particular background than it has on the general student body?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
This links to the previous question regarding the weakest link. Teachers and students want to return to school because, notwithstanding their best efforts in the months since March, there have been deficiencies and these will have to be addressed. It is early days to quantify and particularise these deficiencies but we are already hearing from some of our members that it is an issue in classes. Compensatory measures will have to be considered once there has been a proper assessment of where students are because there has been slippage, notwithstanding, as I said, the great efforts that were made. There is no question that additional resources will have to be made available for that. To link back to the previous question, that is why schools need to remain open. There must be sustainable reopening and all roads lead to physical distancing and the other suite of measures that need to be taken to ensure that. We called for a constant review to be undertaken to ensure the physical distancing requirements are appropriate for schools. That review will have to be implemented.
We have seen many international studies regarding the detrimental effect on educational progress arising from students being out of the classroom for long periods. While we have not seen anything specific to Ireland, are students where Ms Magner would expect them to be? Are pupils in first class or third class, for example, where she would expect them to be in terms of educational development or has there been a regression?
Ms Mary Magner:
Anecdotally, there is no doubt that, as Mr. Christie, there has been some slippage. Our priority is the well-being of children, so that will be addressed immediately in every classroom. Primary teachers rose to the challenge over the summer and have upskilled immensely in the context of Seesaw and Google Classroom and providing learning for their pupils at home. It has been exceedingly challenging. It is an environment they were not used to and that they certainly were not trained for.
We are concerned about children in DEIS schools and those with special educational needs. We are concerned about the disengagement that pupils in DEIS schools might be experiencing, and reintegrating them to school will certainly be a challenge. Children with special educational needs are out of routine and will need additional support. We are delighted that the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, will be on board and available to us.
I, too, welcome all our guests to the meeting. I know how difficult it has been for everybody trying to get children back to school and unions all working together.
My first question is for the INTO. I am aware that an agreement was reached to appoint three primary teachers for 12 schools in towns. My question relates to rural schools. My daughter is a school principal in Myshall. Rural schools have not been put on what is called a supply panel. How was the decision made to apply the panels to towns, that is, how is that 12 schools in towns were allocated three teachers whereas rural schools were not put on a panel? Will the colleges of further education make their final-year students available? Is the lack of teachers a problem?
Have the unions' members been asked to prepare online lesson plans in case schools or classes have to be sent home or because something else happens due to Covid-19? Is a distance learning strategy in place? Is there a programme for all primary and secondary schools? I had many other questions to ask but, unfortunately, my time is almost up.
Mr. John Boyle:
On the third question, it will be a matter for the next set of stakeholder meetings to try to organise a plan B for instances where towns, villages or schools might be closed. We do not have a distance learning programme. While we do not want to go back to such a scenario, the reality is that we probably will have to in some circumstances.
There are 101 panels. The roadmap suggested that there would be 58. We continued to chip away for the past four weeks and we got the number up to 101. Places such as Clifden, where there are many small schools, were added this week, as were Gweedore and other Gaeltacht areas. The large urban areas are where the greatest pressure points exist. More than 2,000 schools will be covered by the supply panels. Obviously, we would wish that every school was covered, including the island schools, of which there are at least two on the supply panels. It is a good starting point relative to where we were, but we still have a bit of work to do there.
Perhaps some of the other witnesses would like to answer the Deputy's other question.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
At second level, every school is trying to make its own plans but there are no national guidelines, as Mr. Boyle noted. There is nothing coming from the Department on this, so schools are making individual plans. The problem again is the digital divide. There are brand new schools with very sophisticated Wi-Fi where every student might even have a tablet, the purchase of which is organised through the school, while there are other schools where there is no such organised arrangement of the standards provided. Many schools also purchased software platforms over the summer, as mentioned earlier. These software platforms are licensed to the school, but teachers and students will have to use their own devices, without training to use these platforms, if there are full or partial closures of schools.
To answer the question, then, there is no overall plan; there are individual schools trying to do their best with the resources they have available. We would welcome, however, some sort of national co-ordination on this issue and we hope that the stakeholders will start getting involved in that process. As I said in my opening remarks, the next challenge is keeping schools open or keeping interaction in place if schools fully or partially close.
Absolutely. I have so many questions that I do not know where to go. Will the colleges of education make final year students available? Is it a part of the talks between the witnesses' organisations and the Department of Education and Skills to see if student teachers can be made available? I hope this does not happen, but if schools must close due to Covid-19 and they need extra teachers, is that in the plan?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
Yes, it is. One of the things that happened over the summer is that the Teaching Council and the other stakeholders, the colleges of education and the Department of Education and Skills, put together a procedure or option that final year professional master of education, PME, students can be used for supervision and substitution when called upon throughout the year. That is in place.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
That may not make the difference that people have said it will, because they were already being used in an under-resourced system last year. They were being used then even without the rules changing. Where those students were in schools doing their PME placements, they were being used in those schools for the whole year. The effect of that change, therefore, may not be as big as people think it is going to be.
I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor and all the Deputies. We will now suspend the sitting. I thank the witnesses for coming in and for all their work in recent months. It is very important to everybody, to families and children everywhere, that students get back to school and back to their routine.