Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 19 November 2020
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Engagement with Trade Unions on Keeping Schools Open: Discussion
I remind members and witnesses that they are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitisers provided to clean seats and desks in order to supplement the regular sanitisation. We have our four witnesses in four separate chairs but I remind people to use the hand sanitisers in front of them regularly throughout the meeting.
I remind members to ensure that their mobiles are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when on silent mode.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI; Mr. Andy Pike, head of education at Fórsa; Mr. John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO; and Mr. Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI.
The witnesses have appeared to discuss a very important issue, namely, ensuring schools are open in a safe and sustainable manner. As for the format of the meeting, I will invite the witnesses to make opening statements of two minutes each, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. As the witnesses will probably be aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following this meeting.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The witnesses should note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. They are, however, expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that the privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory of an identifiable person or entity, I will direct them to discontinue their remarks, and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
First we will have the opening presentations, and then each member will have six minutes to ask questions and for the witnesses to reply. I will cut them off after the six minutes is over. I ask that when members ask their questions, they direct them at whichever witness they want to reply to them.
Mr. Christie may begin, followed by Mr. Pike, Mr. Boyle and, finally, Mr. Gillespie. They have two minutes each.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I thank the committee for the invitation. In the short space of time available I will make the following points.
The challenge is to ensure that schools remain Covid-19-secure and that school communities are safe. The ASTI remains concerned about the different capacity of schools to implement key aspects of the Covid-19 response plan. Hygiene and ventilation facilities still need to be upgraded. Prioritising schools for rapid testing and tracing is absolutely necessary. There is still a lack of communication protocols in schools where an outbreak has occurred. This needs to be addressed. As the colder weather has set in, keeping many classrooms warm while ensuring they are appropriately ventilated has been a big problem in many schools. Teachers and students are in classrooms in their coats in many instances. If a period of very cold weather comes in the coming weeks or months, many schools are likely to have to close for its duration. The ASTI is also anxious that the Covid-19 inspection model being piloted in schools be rolled out nationally without delay. We remain concerned about medically vulnerable teachers and students. They are still required to attend schools and no remote or reasonable accommodations have been implemented to allow them to participate in their work or studies in a more appropriate setting.
ASTI members recently voted to take industrial action unless the Government addresses key Covid-19 issues in schools. These include the need for rapid testing and turnaround, resources for schools to ensure continuation of learning where there are school closures, a redefinition of the term "close contact" for school settings, and appropriate arrangements for teachers categorised as high-risk. We want schools to remain open to students during this pandemic.
ASTI members have also voted to take industrial action on unequal pay. We remain absolutely committed to achieving equal pay for teachers who have entered the profession since 2010. Industrial action would be a last resort but for a trade union, it is vital to have all the tools at our disposal if necessary.
Finally, we welcome the recommendation issued by the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that Covid-19 be designated a reportable disease under health and safety regulations. We want to see that implemented.
Mr. Andy Pike:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it. Given the time constraints, I will focus these opening remarks on the need to review the Department of Education's guidance on the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE, to school staff.
We remain concerned about the lack of clarity on the provision of PPE to school staff, specifically special needs assistants, SNAs, and bus escorts, who cannot maintain the recommended 2 m social distance. The Department of Education informed schools in its roadmap that the purchase and use of basic surgical-grade face masks was optional, not compulsory. In September 2020 Fórsa conducted a survey which received over 4,000 responses from SNAs indicating that approximately one third of respondents had not been provided with face masks and had been provided only with face coverings, which offer minimal protection against contracting the virus. Fórsa requested advice on infection control issues for SNAs. After a considerable delay, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, published that advice in September. It stated that face masks should be provided to SNAs where they could not maintain social distancing and where they were required to carry out intimate care for students. This has led to a ridiculous situation whereby an SNA works side by side with a student for over six hours but may then only receive the protection of a basic-grade mask when taking the student to the toilet. The risks of not maintaining a 2 m social distance do not solely occur when providing personal care to the student as the risks are present when the SNA helps with learning activities. It is the lack of distance, not washing and changing a student, that creates the risk.
The lack of adequate PPE has implications for staff assessed as being at high risk should they contract Covid-19. These staff have been advised to attend work, with the risks to their health being offset by the use of PPE. This is clearly contradicted by the HPSC advice that face masks may be necessary only when providing personal care to students. It cannot be right that an employee working as a bus escort with 20 students in a confined space for several hours is not provided with a basic-grade face mask. It is simply illogical to state that an SNA working side by side with students throughout the day needs a surgical grade mask only when taking a student to the toilet or when helping him or her to wash and change clothes. Fórsa has this week started to provide a stock of surgical masks to SNAs who cannot access this equipment within their schools. We were able to purchase a stock of these masks at a cost of 20 cent each. The Department of Education’s procurement framework enables schools to bulk-buy at much lower cost.
In summary, we believe that the Department of Education started planning for the reopening of schools from the perspective of minimising the use of PPE in schools and has continued to maintain such a policy to the detriment of the staff who have been asked to keep these workplaces open during level 5 public health restrictions. School staff deserve to have adequate PPE provided to them, as do their colleagues in health and social care services. The advice on the use of PPE should be urgently reviewed to ensure that equipment is provided to those in our schools who are at high risk and to those who are working every day without being able to maintain the recommended 2 m social distance.
Mr. John Boyle:
In the months since we have provided the committee with our submission, issues have been dealt with more efficiently and effectively. However, principals along the Border, where there is a big disconnect between Health and Social Care, HSC, in Northern Ireland and the HSE, need extra support, as do all principals at the weekends.
The 2021 minor works grant that was announced last week will not be sufficient for primary and special schools to have air monitoring systems installed. The €25 extra, which is only €3.50 per day extra to clean a classroom, is totally inadequate and will be spent by Christmas so further funding is required. There is a €50 million budget for digital learning that we have not seen yet but we must make sure that it is allocated fairly bearing in mind that previously primary schools have always been shortchanged for ICT funding.
As many as 80% of our members stated in a recent survey that it was the children with special educational needs whose learning had been impacted most during the school closures. Therefore, it is imperative that additional resources and supports are invested in special education.
The Government must undertake a further review of the requirement for high-risk teachers to attend schools. It must send a strong message to families, who travel abroad over Christmas, that children must restrict their movements on returning in January in line with public health advice.
The Government should have provided a free flu vaccine to all teachers and we are disappointed that it did not do so. We insist that when the Covid-19 vaccine become available that all those who work in our schools are prioritised for the vaccine.
There are 1,000 schools that are outside the supply panel scheme and they struggle to source substitute teachers. We must expand the scheme to include all schools in the new year.
The Government must make an announcement that pay inequality in the teaching profession will end in the next public service pay deal. Such an announcement will be key to attracting and retaining teachers.
Finally, as we have not met the Minister for Education for quite some time we call on her to meet the representatives of all of the unions so that we can share our concerns, before Christmas, in respect of the safety and sustainability of schools from January until Easter. Go raibh céad maith agaibh as an cuireadh labhairt libh.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
We have been successful in reopening schools. However, to ensure schools remain open, effective action by all of society is required. The Government must provide the necessary levels of resourcing, clarity and assurance to the education sector.
The TUI welcomes Covid-19 inspections in schools. A minority of schools are not adhering to the public health measures so compliance must be enforced. A school is a workplace and staff must be protected in their workplace. The enhanced allocation provided, while welcome, has been insufficient to meet additional requirements. Moreover, the discriminatory two-tier pay structure remains an obstacle to teacher recruitment and must be eliminated. Also, not enough has been provided to ensure a satisfactory cleaning regime. Additional funding must be made available to remedy these and other key deficiencies.
A TUI survey of teachers identified more physical space and smaller classes as the measures to counter challenges posed by Covid-19. The TUI calls for a full audit of each school to establish and quantify the resources needed to keep schools open.
Many school buildings are not fit for purpose. Ventilation and heating problems will occur during the period of colder weather and may force the closure of some schools. TUI calls for the Department of Education to take the advice of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and install air quality meters in every classroom. The measure will ensure that students and teachers are not forced to teach and learn in freezing cold classrooms.
We must reconceptualise school design. The current crisis has taught us the importance of infrastructure that is fit for purpose.
ICT infrastructure is deficient. Many of our students lack access to the technology to engage effectively in emergency remote learning. The TUI will not countenance a situation whereby students can access education only if they can afford information technology or IT. The poor and the marginalised suffer the most in such circumstances.
We welcome the Minister's stated intention to hold the traditional State examinations, which is something on which the TUI had called for certainty. However, we believe further adjustment to assessments and curriculum content beyond those already made will be required due to the loss in tuition time.
Despite the additional Covid-related work, teachers, principals and deputy principals have made sure that their schools opened safely while they carried out their normal, back-to-school duties. However, the additional workload is now not sustainable. Targeted resources are imperative, including the full restoration of middle management structures.
The TUI members will continue to operate in accordance with the relevant public health advice but the Government must provide us with the certainty, clarity, information, resources and ongoing investment that is required to keep schools open.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. The first questioner is Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan and he will be followed by Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire who will join us by video-link. I remind members and witnesses of the six minute timeframe
I welcome the four speakers today. Many of the speakers in this room and many of us who will contribute now and later come from educational backgrounds. We deal with teachers, principals and boards of management quite regularly at the moment. We must salute the work that has been done by the teaching staff, cleaning staff, bus drivers, boards of management and all of the stakeholders who have made the return to schools possible.
I note that Mr. John Boyle from the INTO mentioned in his statement that some things have improved. Please identify one or two things that have improved in terms of how we are dealing with Covid in schools.
Mr. John Boyle:
I thank the Deputy for affirming the great work done by our members and all workers in schools.
The improvements, since we submitted our submission a month ago, were things we have sought since last May. We now have sector-specific supports in every HSE area, particularly for principal teachers or principals who made all of the phone calls over their weekends when we sent in our submission.
We have weekly meetings with representatives of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and the Department of Education. Yesterday, we received a weekly report from NPHET so we can now compare reports. Most important, we demanded a mid-term review. We wanted a report by the end of September but got it yesterday. It is a very full document by NPHET and the office of the clinical director for health protection. The report contains quite a lot of recommendations and I think it is public since yesterday. Most of the recommendations emanated from the discourse that we had when we had proper weekly engagement with all of the stakeholders and medical people. That has all been welcome. At the beginning of my statement today, I identified a few issues regarding the weekends. Last Monday, we were just three weeks back after the mid-term break but last weekend there were still a considerable number of principal teachers who had to put in long hours. The previous weekend I, myself, was in the firing line because one particular school had 16 staff absent due to self-isolating because of a couple of cases in the school, which was the decision taken by the HSE. We floundered around for the weekend to find substitutes to support the board of management and its teachers. That should not happen at the weekend so it would be great if the substitution service was available at the weekend.
I am particularly interested, as I am sure many members are, in the issue along the Border counties where, unfortunately, including in my own county of Donegal, the numbers have not reduced as quickly. Many children travel from the North of Ireland to attend school in County Donegal but there is no joined-up thinking between the health services on both sides of the Border. As members already know, when it comes to schooling it is the principals who are left in a situation where they cannot do contact tracing within the different sectors because they are not joined up and then the principals have the difficulty of deciding whether children should come to school so there is a lot to be done yet.
Mr. John Boyle:
Interestingly, I do not think that the Department keeps a record of substitutions because public health does not go into that space. Public health bases its determination on public health reasons. What if staff have to self-isolate and be absent for a number of days? I identified a school but I think it was actually 17 staff who self-isolated so it was seven special needs assistants, nine teachers and one school secretary. The school only closed for one day because of all of the work that had been done over the weekend to get the supply panel in the area to stand down its teacher appointments for other schools and prioritise this emergency. That case bears out my report that the supply panel while welcome needs to be available to all of the schools and be expanded in the new year.
Mr. John Boyle:
We are. We have a front-line person in our office who deals specifically with schools around Covid-19. We know that a small number of schools were closed on public health grounds. A lot of pods and classes are at home, which is regrettable but it is for everyone's safety.
In terms of the substitution issue, we know that there are individual classes where a lot of special education teachers are being asked to leave the special education children to give their time to the mainstream class because classes cannot be split.
There is a method of paying back that support to the children with special educational needs but we are not sure it will work because the hours are being banked. We do not know if there is going to be anybody there to pay that back to those children in the new year. That is very important because they lost enough during the lockdown.
Mr. Gillespie from the TUI made reference in his submission to adjustments of assessments and curriculum content beyond those already made. The Minister for Education appeared before the committee last week and I raised with her the need for flexibility with orals, practicals and the like that are due to occur. Does anything specific require adjustment?
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Our members are reporting on every subject, including mathematics and music. In music, the vast majority of students do singing in the oral for music. There is no clarity about how the second component of assessments are going to be carried out in the new year. They are very much a part of the new leaving certificate. The class of 2021 is now the priority. The class of 2020 is doing examinations in schools as we speak up until 11 December. It would take me a long time to go through each recommendation we have made for each subject. We had a meeting yesterday with the Department in which we raised the concerns we have subject by subject. The planning has started now and there is due to be a meeting of all the stakeholders next week on this issue. What we are calling for is certainty for the class of 2021, sooner rather than later. We do not want a repeat of the on-again, off-again that occurred earlier this year.
First, I wish to acknowledge once again the enormous work undertaken by all school staff to ensure that schools reopened and that education resumed in the best possible manner, which is in the classroom. However, it is important to note that a great deal more must be done to ensure schools can be safe for school staff and students. For that reason, I and a number of colleagues asked that this be one of the first issues addressed by this committee.
I have a question for the representative of each union and organisation. The selection of the union is probably partially arbitrary because my questions could apply to anyone. My first question is for the TUI and relates to ventilation. Ventilation has been raised with me in discussions with parents and principals. We know it is increasingly prominent in the discussions about the science of this. Many older schools, built in the 1950s and 1960s, have few options when it comes to ventilation apart from open doors and windows. That creates difficulties for schools, with hard decisions about asking children to come to school wearing clothing for sitting next to windows, rotation and the like. That is difficult for schools. Does Mr. Gillespie believe that the Department must bring forward more guidance on this, since I believe there is a shortage of guidance, as well as dedicated funding for schools that are struggling with ventilation?
My second question is for the INTO representative, and it follows up on the question raised by Deputy O'Sullivan. The school-specific tracing teams that were recently established are a good idea, but they have to work to correct and realistic criteria and they must have resources and be deployed in the right way. In my experience, many school staff and parents have been mystified by some of the decisions on who is and is not a close contact. I have encountered this in my community and across the State. There was a good article in yesterday's edition of The Irish Timeshighlighting that. While the desire to minimise disruption to a school is obviously good, I am concerned that sometimes decisions can be made whereby if it is not dealt with decisively, one could extend the lifetime of the virus in a school and the number of children or school staff affected. We must deal with that.
My final two questions are for the ASTI and Fórsa. One of the issues in the ballot for industrial action relates to high-risk staff. Many people have found Medmark to be a blunt instrument. Is the ASTI in any way reassured with the progress being made for high-risk staff? It sounded from the statement that it is not. Many people are concerned and very few people in the appeals process succeed in having that revised. That must be revisited and requires a more tailored approach. With regard to Fórsa and its point about medical-grade masks, I agree with its analysis. There is a misunderstanding of the role and the proximity of SNAs in respect of students. I do not believe there is a realistic understanding of the role of the SNA in that regard, and that must continue to be highlighted.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
On the ventilation, there are many old schools in the country and our stock is not great in that regard. People are depending on common sense such as opening windows. We all know that air exchange is very important. Schools on the Continent have invested heavily in heat exchanges and the like and they can also be programmed to change the air. We are immediately at a disadvantage to the schools on the Continent. We have not invested in passive buildings in energy, and a side effect of that is the air changes.
We called for meters to be put into classrooms. Cheaper meters can be bought, as the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, said. The meters would monitor, for example, the amount of carbon dioxide and signal when there could be air change. It is not an answer to the problem, but it might help. Ventilation is going to become a crucial issue because we all know this is an airborne virus that is carried in droplets. Ventilation, clearing out the air and not allowing the air to build up in classrooms are a problem. I previously said there is not much point in protecting us from Covid-19 if we are all going to end up with pneumonia in January and February in the cold rooms.
In addition, heating systems in schools are not fit for purpose. As soon as one opens windows in Irish schools, the room takes ages to heat up again because the schools are not well insulated. It shows the lack of investment in infrastructure over the past number of years, and it is all coming to a head because of this problem.
Mr. John Boyle:
With regard to the inconsistencies people are concerned about in public health risk assessments, far be it from me to second-guess the medical experts. However, consistency will be the key to this. I realise they are under a great deal of pressure, but we were forced a number of weeks ago to suggest to our members that if a principal teacher receives a telephone call from a public health expert carrying out a risk assessment, they are not to answer immediately all the questions being asked but at least go down the corridor and talk to the key workers who have been associated with that case. There is tension between GDPR and public health advice. GDPR is very important, but people's lives are even more important. What has been happening in the primary schools is that the principal now takes time to talk to the key workers associated with the particular case in the school. Mass testing has been carried out in 935 educational facilities, and there has been inconsistency in the risk assessment carried out. Every place is different, but we must have confidence in the system and that whatever is being doing in school A is being done to the same degree in school B. At that point, parents, students and staff can have confidence that they are being well looked after.
I pointed out to NPHET personnel yesterday that it appears to be a little bizarre that an entire class, the most overcrowded classes in Europe with 35 children, would be sent home, but that the two workers working in the classroom would not. NPHET has its reasons for making those decisions, but it would give great confidence to the workers if they were also sent for a test in such a situation, and, hopefully, it would be negative.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I am conscious of the time. The Deputy is quite correct that the issue of the high-risk category workers is a very blunt instrument. There are many anxious people. To outline the extent of it, some people have had cancers and other serious illnesses, and some of them are losing sleep and so forth. We have called for reassignment of those people and reasonable accommodations to be provided to them. We are renewing that call here today.
Mr. Andy Pike:
I do not believe that the author of the current guidance necessarily has a full understanding of the work of a SNA daily in a school. We asked the then acting Chief Medical Officer for a review of the guidance and were told he had no statutory responsibility for staff in the education sector. We asked the current Minister for Health for a review of the guidance and were again told that he had no statutory responsibility for staff in the education sector, so we are in a cul de sac on this.
It is relevant, especially in terms of how a close contact is defined, because one of the criteria used by public health is an assessment of what PPE is available and in use and on that point we think the guidance is very confused.
It is nice to meet the trade union representatives. It is my first time meeting the teacher unions. We are here to talk about ensuring schools are open in a manner which is both safe and sustainable. I read through the witnesses' opening statements. Turning first to Mr. Boyle from the INTO, I would like to know a little more about the flu vaccine for teachers, which I support. They are a group that should be considered to get the flu vaccine but it is in short supply at the moment. I ask also about the increase in the pupil capitation fee of €25. Why are 1,000 schools outside the substitute supply panels?
Moving to Mr. Christie, I acknowledge the tribute to the school boards of management. They do an awful lot of work in the background. I was on the board of management for the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, GRETB. Much work has been done by principals, school caretakers and bus drivers. Everyone is involved and they are all close contacts. I am very interested to hear just a little bit more on SNAs and PPE.
I have a question on space in primary schools, which was not covered in the opening statements. There will be an extra 1,000 teachers to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Where do those teachers and classes go when there is no classroom space?
Mr. John Boyle:
Perhaps I will begin. Obviously if the flu vaccine becomes available, there will be a hierarchy and I imagine the high-risk, vulnerable and elderly, as well as healthcare workers, will be at the top of it. However, the Government has deemed it essential to keep schools open, which indicates that the definition of essential workers includes teachers, SNAs and school secretaries. I was very disappointed the flu vaccine was not made available to all front-line staff in schools but we are moving on from that now. The most important vaccine is the new one for Covid-19. It would give great reassurance to parents and students if they knew teachers were vaccinated. It would also mean our workers would be much more confident going into the workplace. This particularly the case when, as I said, a teacher has 35 children in his or her classroom from 35 different families. There has to be a risk there and many staff in education have been infected, despite the way this issue is being portrayed in the media.
On the €25 capitation, I based my sums on the average of 25 children per class. I know that some classes have many more pupils. When we multiply €25 by 25 we get €625 per year. With a school year of 193 days, that amounts to approximately €3.50 per day. How on earth could any cleaner do enhanced cleaning in a classroom on a daily basis for €3.50? When they got that money most schools assumed it was for the term up to Christmas and they expected to get at least twice as much after Christmas. We are calling for that because the money is running out.
On the supply panels scheme, it must be acknowledged that 3,150 schools were outside the scheme when the pilot was initiated this time last year. There are 2,100 schools included this year but why were the other 1,000 not included? The first reason was the pressure caused by the time needed to organise it. However, it seems the Government was not prepared to put in the extra 50 or 60 teachers. The gas thing is it would not cost any money because there is a budget in place for substitute teachers in any event. There is certainly in the supply panel that a school will have a far better chance of getting a substitute teacher and there is also certainty for the workers and children that it will be consistent, with the same person coming into the school. The scheme should definitely be enhanced after Christmas to look after the 1,000 remaining schools.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I thank the Senator for her kind words about the tribute to boards of management, principals, teachers and the acknowledgement of the great work that is being done. I am sure they will be well appreciated through the breadth and depth of the country.
The fact is that teachers and other workers in schools are now essential front-line workers. Like Mr. Boyle, we have also called for the flu vaccine to be distributed to school staff. It is unfortunate that has not been the case. Notwithstanding all that great work, the task remains immense in that there is a very tough and difficult job ahead. We are still only in November and we have the bulk of the winter to endure. I mentioned earlier the issue of ventilation and heating in this cold weather. We could have a freeze this year, similar to the one we had some years ago when, as members will recall, schools closed largely for transport reasons. They got over that but this time schools would close because they would be too cold and it will not be possible to keep them open. Considerable thought and effort needs to be put into dealing with classes which may have to be sent home or individual schools that may have to close and the arrangements around that. There is an enormous amount of work still to be done.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has recommended these devices in a report. They are a cheaper method than installing heat exchange systems or anything more sophisticated than that because the cost might be prohibitive. We should have been looking at this years ago, even for energy efficiency reasons.
On the space for schools, we were given an extra allocation in post-primary schools. What is happening is that communal areas and parts of gyms are being used as classrooms because we started with the biggest classes in Europe and that is what we had to do. We should not have been starting there; that is the biggest problem.
At post-primary level, unlike at primary level, the problem is subject-specific. We might get a substitute teacher but he or she will not be in the same subject. The scarcity of teachers is, as we said, partly to do with the two-tier pay system. Certain teachers have transferable skills so they can go into the private sector or whatever and they are not entering teaching. That is part of it. We may have substitutes but they are not subject-specific.
Mr. Andy Pike:
On the issue of space for SNAs who work in the classroom with students at the same table, the small classrooms are proving to be a significant challenge. This is especially so when they move between pods in primary where there are several pods in a class. There are worries among our members that this creates a higher risk of infection than needs to be the case. Returning to the issue of PPE, if they are just wearing a face covering, others are protected against what they may transmit but a face covering, such as the one I am using today, will not protect me or them from contracting the virus. That is the point about the use of appropriate PPE.
I thank the trade union representatives for their presentations. It is timely and necessary that the unions address this committee so I am glad to see it happen. I have a couple of points which I will mention in passing as they have been addressed. I echo the concerns around PPE for SNA staff. It is untenable to claim that an SNA can maintain a 2 m distance from the child he or she is working with. I also want address the point about the inadequacy of our built school environment and the age of the building stock. I was struck by a line in Mr. Gillespie's submission about reconceptualising school design. That would be a very interesting point for this committee to come back to at some point in the future when we could look at how the physical design of our school infrastructure can affect teaching and learning outcomes.
We should consider the ventilation issue in a wider context, not just a Covid one, because if we improve ventilation systems in our schools, that will reduce the transmissibility of other diseases. Thankfully, Covid does not seem to find a reservoir in our younger population but other transmissible diseases do.
That brings me to the issue of the flu vaccine, raised by Mr. Boyle. When I was in the classroom, I used to get the flu jab for exactly that reason, namely, to take five days of sickness out of the equation for myself. That is not possible this year. We had 1.35 million doses but the demand has been great. As I understand it, some of the children's vaccine is still available. It is very effective and free at the point of use up to 12 years of age. There is perhaps a role for the INTO in publicising and pushing that because if we begin to break the chain of transmission at a school level, it will be very useful.
Mr. John Boyle:
While I thank the Deputy for making that proposal it is ironic that he is doing so. I discovered only this week that fewer than 20% of the children of Ireland have taken up the vaccine, or their parents have chosen to do so. It is ironic that the Deputy would be asking us to promote this at a time when his Government has denied the front-line workers in the classrooms the same vaccine. Nevertheless, we are there for the safety of the children, as well as the teachers. We will help out but we would like a rethink on the free vaccine for teachers. I am aware that they are available in some chemists, which are providing the vaccine for free because they recognise the importance of schools being open for the economy and for their own workplaces.
On the Covid-19 vaccine, I believe that a different approach will have to be taken by the Government. I cannot emphasise this enough. It will be critical for keeping schools open and for showing the workers in the schools that the Government really values the work they have done to get the schools reopened since September.
No irony is intended; I am quite sure. There has been unprecedented demand. I would like to have seen teachers vaccinated.
On the issue of school attendance, of children and of teachers, will the witnesses provide details on whether we have seen the big impact? Are we seeing increased demand for substitution? Are we seeing a lot of children not attending this year?
On the substitute teacher supply scheme, we have identified deficiencies but will Mr. Christie and Mr. Boyle comment on how successful it has been? Apart from providing cover to those extra schools are there other areas we need to work on and make improvements in so the system works a little better?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
All schools have felt that substitution has been challenging, and particularly when there have been cases with Covid-19 and restricted movements. The parts are all interlinked here. Substitutes are, as we know, two a penny in certain subjects but in others they are nearly impossible to get. That has been the case in the lead up to this. We were in a bad place with regard to substitutes in the run-up to Covid-19 because many of our younger teachers, suffering from the consequences of unequal pay, were abroad or elsewhere. The reservoir was starting off from a very low point. Schools are definitely reporting to us that they are finding it an enormous problem to secure substitutes, and especially in subjects in the technology area and so on. That has always been the case but now it is spread right across the subject range.
Mr. John Boyle:
With regard to substitution in primary schools, when I was in the classroom and working for the INTO part time as a local representative in Dublin, I always would compare the resourcing going into Castleknock and Blanchardstown in Dublin 15 with that going into Tallaght and Firhouse, for example, because the numbers of teachers in schools in those two areas are similar. After a lot of pulling and dragging we now have three supply panels based in the Dublin 15 area, but in Tallaght and Firhouse, we only have one. Obviously the teachers and the families in that area whose children do not have qualified teachers are very alarmed at the fact that not many of the schools in the area are covered or the cover is insufficient. Then there are the other 1,000 schools, mostly in rural Ireland. In north Louth, for example, and in various parts of County Cork there is still a huge demand for additional supply panels to be established. I believe the Department is looking at it, but then the Departments of Finance and of Public Expenditure and Reform look at the 320 jobs that went into this scheme and are reluctant to give any more. I believe it is really important for the education of the children that they have a fully qualified teacher every day. In that regard, sending additional supply panels is actually cost neutral. Okay, it looks more on the job scene, but at the same time there is a budget for substitution. Like previous years, if this continues, the budget is not going to be spent. Who is losing out? The children are losing out.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
On the ventilation and new designs, there is an opportunity here to improve ventilation and energy efficiency in schools, because the two can go hand in hand. Yes, that needs to be done and should be done. Smaller classes are also needed. We are in the middle of a pandemic. We do not know when the next pandemic will come. These viruses mutate and change all the time. This is a lesson learned. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh is right that we need to start reconceptualising and to be ready. It will not be done overnight but we do need to do that.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I thank them and their members for keeping our schools open. Without the schools being open, our country cannot function. I would like the witnesses to bring a message back to the members they represent of the gratitude of this committee and the people of Ireland.
I have a question for Mr. Boyle before I ask for other responses. Mr. Boyle said he had not met with the Minster in quite some time, even though he has met representatives of NPHET and the Department weekly. When was the last time Mr. Boyle met the Minister?
Mr. John Boyle:
We only met the Minister, Deputy Foley, once since the beginning of the school year. We met with her in August. I am calling to meet with the Minister because I am aware that in other sectors, such as food processing and construction, that Roinn an Taoisigh has a high-level group that meets the various stakeholders in those sectors. They also include the trade unions representing the workers. I am aware that Ministers tend to be very busy but some Ministers find the time to go to those high-level meetings. There is such a structure in place for education but we know very little about it. We have our weekly meetings with NPHET, which are welcome. We have monthly or fortnightly stakeholder meetings, which are also welcome. We meet fantastic officials from the Department of Education, who are doing their very best to deal with the issues, but it is timely now, coming up to Christmas, that the Minister would meet us in order that she can hear our concerns directly and bring those back to the Government to make sure that schools stay open safely between Christmas and Easter.
I will make some general comments and ask for general reflections. With regard to public health teams and the HSE giving contradictory advice to different schools regarding close contacts, Fórsa has made its comments known about face coverings and PPE. Do the teacher unions have similar concerns?
Will Mr. Boyle speak to the DEIS situation in respect of the pupil-teacher ratio, which has not been carried on to the infant or vertical DEIS schools?
Will Mr. Pike speak to the issue of the 72 non-contact hours, which SNAs are required to do and on the issue of having SNAs on site during a pandemic? How wise or unwise does Mr. Pike feel that may be?
What are the big lessons, from each of the witness's perspective, for post-Covid education in Ireland? What can we learn from this crisis? We did not learn enough from the last one, but what can we learn from this one in order that we can really repair education and make it fit for the people who work in it and for the people who learn in it?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I will answer the Deputy's first question on the contradictory advice to different schools. It was a feature earlier in the year and we have been raising it. We feel that the situation is improving. The communication was poor around that question from early September right through to Hallowe'en. That was largely because we were not meeting NPHET officials and they were not hearing our concerns. They are beginning to act on those and they are working harder now on the communication piece, which is very welcome. We are getting more information. We are also getting explanations on how decisions are being made in schools in relation to close contacts. A number of items of information feed into that. Obviously they are the professionals, and we understand that, but there was a level of mystification in the system around the decisions as to who were close contacts in fairly crowded classrooms and this was causing a lot of anxiety. It is not gone but it is dissipating a little bit, in that we are getting better quality information all the time, including updated information around the decision making, which might be helpful. There is certainly still quite an amount of work to be done on that whole area.
Mr. Andy Pike:
We also welcome the additional input from the HSE. We still have concerns around how close contacts are being defined. The concerns have not gone away. We are also concerned about how cases that are reported in the community may feature in an overall assessment of the extent of Covid-19 in our schools. That is not to say the situation is unsafe.
We have a little more information than we had a few months ago but we still have concerns. The issue of the 72 non-contact hours relates to an obligation to be available for additional work on special educational issues within a school if one is an SNA, as and when the need arises. We requested that SNAs not be required to be on-site during the pandemic any more than was necessary and in response to that, the Department of Education has changed policy to state that the 72 hours are mandatory and have to be carried out by every SNA. That has not gone to a third party in the Workplace Relations Commission but we do not see any justification for keeping people on-site unnecessarily during a pandemic. We do not understand the logic of such a move.
Mr. John Boyle:
The DEIS question is important to Deputy Ó Ríordáin and to me. It was a scandal that the class size reductions were not passed on to the most marginalised children, except in the senior DEIS schools. It appears to me that the reason it was done for the senior DEIS schools was because the school in Bonnybrook had a class size of 24 and now the school in Donnybrook was going to have a class size of 24 or 25 as well and we really could not be having that as it would not look good. Therefore, we reduced it for the senior schools but not for the vertical or junior schools. There is a €5 million budget and we will be having a meeting with the officials. We wrote to the Minister immediately after budget day. We are having a meeting. We want to have that meeting soon because we want to make sure additional staffing is put into the most marginalised children.
Our President, Mary Magner, made a famous point recently that the best PPE one can have in a primary school is a smaller class. She was not being flippant about that but it addresses Deputy Ó Ríordáin's question about underinvestment down the years. When the Government needed the schools to open to support the community and provide education for children, it could find €400 million fairly quickly but we were looking for that money for about a decade before that. The lesson to be learned is that if we invest for the best we will get the best.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
On the first question on public health, the contact tracing was not working well before the mid-term break. There were lots of issues coming up, including principals having difficulty contacting the HSE. Since the mid-term break, that has considerably improved. Since we have been meeting every Wednesday, we have received guarantees that the contact tracing that applies in schools is the same as it applies everywhere else. There is then a further level, in that a risk assessment is carried out when there is a positive case or contact tracing in a school. That is working but the HSE is telling us that inconsistencies are sometimes showing up in the way the things in schools are applying. On a positive note, teachers, parents and students are obeying the rules and that is why the levels of Covid-19 in schools are low. That is due to the dedication and commitment of the teachers, principals, SNAs and all of the staff in schools.
The next question was on what lessons have been learned. Lessons have been learned about the importance of education and of face-to-face contact. Investment in education is a priority for every country. The things we have not invested in - small class sizes, the quality of education, and health and safety in terms of the spread of tiny viruses that can have such an effect - show that small class sizes are a necessity. Smaller classes need to be the future of education.
I will not keep the witnesses for long because I do not want to repeat what some members have already asked in other questions. I thank each and every one of the witnesses for coming in and presenting to us today, and I thank their trade union members. The teachers, SNAs, cleaners and bus drivers, down to the caretakers in schools are all essential workers. They should be treated and valued as such. Mr. Boyle said that "if we invest for the best we will get the best." I like that quote. A lot of our teachers are also mothers and fathers and they have children and loved ones at home who are at high risk. We should listen to the professionals who are in the education system and who deal with young people on a daily basis.
I have a question that is a little bit different from those of other members, namely on homework clubs, breakfast clubs and lunch clubs in schools. As we all know, there is a great level of poverty in Ireland. Many children are homeless, in direct provision or from the Traveller community and other ethnic minority groups. What extra measures, if any, are being put in place for the vulnerable children at the margins of Irish society?
My other question is on broadband for children in rural Ireland. Is there a grant for this? I know there have been four or five announcements in recent months on a budget up to December. I am sure I even heard a budget announcement on the radio this morning but the same announcement has been made a few times. How are we making sure that children in poverty are not falling through the loops in the middle of a pandemic?
On further and higher education, people who access higher education have to attend if it is a post-leaving certificate, PLC course, for example. People who are doing degrees in universities, however, can do their courses online. Why is it not optional for both?
Mr. John Boyle:
I echo the Senator's concerns on those who are marginalised. We have been looking for guidance on additional after-school and before-school activities such as breakfast clubs. We want to get guidance that does not tell us to stop them but to make sure they are done safely. The classrooms are highly sanitised with people being kept to pods and bubbles and so on but then they are mixing for those activities and we want to make sure that when they are mixing it is done safely. We have yet to get that guidance.
I have to say that I have been really proud since the Easter holidays of our principals, in particular, but also of all our staff members who provide the free school meals scheme and delivered meals to houses. In the summer, we had the DEIS programmes, which were very important, and we had the special education programmes, particularly for children with autism. For the teachers who volunteered to work on those programmes, that was a fantastic achievement.
I would be worried, as the Senator is, about broadband and I am sure other members are too. We had a situation in which lots of families did not even have the devices to access remote learning in their homes, never mind the broadband. Some 23,779 people from the education sector have had to spend time at home after a Covid-19 test. That is a lot of people at home, usually for two weeks, and they are missing out on their education. Sometimes that happens simply because there is no broadband in the area. We had teachers going into the car parks of county council offices, trying to get enough broadband to download some of the materials the Department was sending out as guidance. There is a long way to go, therefore. We have a €50 million ICT grant. We still do not know what is in the announcements from budget day or when it is coming so I share all of the Senator's concerns around that. The marginalised need to be put first because education is a great equaliser for them.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
We have a lot of members in education and training board, ETB, and DEIS schools in the TUI. They are doing their best to try to look after those students, especially in the DEIS schools. Space has become a premium for a number of teachers but a big factor is that this is pastoral care and we depended on those in posts of responsibility to do this, namely year heads, care teams, tutors and so on. In 2008, one in two teachers had a post of responsibility. Following the moratorium and the cutbacks, we are down to one in four. The restorations were promised in 2016 and they have been tiny. It would be a great help to those marginalised people if we had people who were specifically assigned to do those jobs. Those are posts of responsibility and that was a massive cut from one in two teachers to one in four, as I said, and that cut has never been reversed. That would be a big move.
The infrastructure is a bit like the ventilation. What has been shown up is a complete lack of investment in infrastructure, not just in the schools but also abroad. The grants that were given were insufficient for the students who cannot afford personal devices. We saw in the lockdown in our schools that people were trying to access the classes but that they were doing it on their mobile phones. That was all they had and then the monetary value ran out.
As we said in our opening statement, society needs to share this burden. Perhaps the mobile network companies could have provided something without charge, such as an extension of the 4G, but it is not good enough that they do not have a device to access it.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
We absolutely share the concerns expressed by Senator Flynn regarding vulnerable children. She mentioned broadband, and of course all of these things are interlinked. She also mentioned rural broadband, and as someone from a rural area, I understand well the difficulties around that. In terms of the lockdown that took place, we learned a lot about the sharp divisions that exist in Irish society, in particular around the area highlighted, namely, technology. We have called on the Minister and the Government to purchase a laptop for every student in the country to ensure that they have the necessary facilities, come what may, this year during the Covid-19 pandemic, to participate in their education. We share the Senator's anxieties on this matter.
Mr. Andy Pike:
Fórsa believes that provision for disadvantaged children is very fragmented. It relies, in part, on goodwill. We would like to see a strategy developed that draws together all the different agencies and actors who are trying to assist children and to put it on a statutory footing. At the moment, there is a school completion programme across the country that is very active in term of organising breakfast clubs, and assisting students with staying in education. Tusla is trying to assist students from disadvantaged families where there is a welfare issue, and there are also various different activities that schools promote. Local development companies in the community run Traveller education and health programmes, but the degree to which all of these elements are integrated is a concern. There is a lot of assistance being given, but we would like to see far more integration and a proper funding stream to get supports organised in a consistent way across the country.
I have many little notes scribbled down, so I hope I can make sense of them during my six minutes.
First, I wish to echo and re-emphasise our huge gratitude and appreciation of the whole school community and every single school in respect of the reopening the schools and keeping them opened. We can never say it enough. We appreciate also the leadership that was shown, because it was not just about the hard work. People within the school campuses, parents and children needed confidence from their school leaders and they did an excellent job.
I thank the witnesses for their statements and submissions. There was some commonality in them in respect of the need for smaller class sizes; the digital divide; the physical buildings issue; the pay equality issue, which is really important; and the restoration of middle management, which is key. I must say that I am really glad that over the past few months - thanks to Mr. Pike and Fórsa - school secretaries and the caretakers have been brought into the family, so to speak, because as one school principal said to me, caretakers are facility managers as opposed to caretakers, particularly in the context of Covid-19.
On the issue of DEIS, I completely support doing what we can for those that are vulnerable or disadvantaged, but there are so many of those children in non-DEIS schools and sometimes we can caught up with the distinction between DEIS and non-DEIS schools. However, I certainly think that it is welcome that the responsibility for the school completion programme is moving from Tusla to the Department for Education.
I support the call for teachers to get the Covid vaccine and that should happen after it is given to healthcare workers. I agree with that call.
Regarding the call for the Minister to meet with the unions before Christmas, I think that is a very reasonable ask. However, it needs to be acknowledged that weekly calls are taking place with her office and Department, and I have no doubt that she is very well informed of the issues, but it would be good to have that meeting.
The teacher supply system is concerning, and it absolutely needs to be looked at. It is a huge concern if teachers are leaving special classes or autistic spectrum disorder units, as Mr. Boyle has outlined. He said in his submission that 80% of teachers said that children with special educational needs, SEN, were those most impacted by the closure of schools, but if they are now being further impacted, I would say that we are reaching a crisis point in relation to the issue, and that is something that we need to take on board.
I have a few quick questions for the witnesses. First, is there any immediate measure that needs to be put in place, and if so, what is it? I also ask them to comment on contingency plans for a possible further school closure, which none of us wants to happen. They might also speak to the issue of teachers or pupils who have to self-isolate, particularly pupils and how they can continue their education during that period.
Mr. John Boyle:
The immediate measure all of us wish to see is certainty about funding after Christmas. I have family members who are in the Middle East. When the public service pay talks happen, which will hopefully be fairly soon, it would be wonderful if those teachers were able to come back from Dubai to meet to their parents over Christmas-----
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
On that point, we have a strange situation where permanent teachers can only be appointed in September and October. Surely if people can come back, they should be able to get permanent appointments in the middle of the year. It makes no sense that this restriction, which goes back to years before my time, is in place that appointments are only made after the summer holidays. With computers, that should not happen.
On the DEIS issue, the contradictions are huge. I was a secondary school teacher and I taught in the only school in a town. Three largest national schools that fed into it were DEIS schools, and yet the secondary school did not get DEIS status, with the things that would go to support those coming from DEIS schools. Therefore, we had to try to make do and counteract that. There are inconsistencies there, and that really needs to be tackled. What needs to be done immediately is to increase the number of teachers, because more teachers would lead to smaller classes and support what we are looking for.
Mr. Andy Pike:
For our members the immediate measure that would assist them would to be to stop hearing from Government representatives that education staff are now front-line workers. The Government should stop saying that unless it is going to treat them as front-line workers, provide them with the flu vaccine, give a commitment that they will be part of the schedule for the Covid vaccine when it is available, and provide them with proper PPE.
The issue of contingencies for school closures in respect of SEN students is a critical one. Plans should be in place so that if schools were to close - let us hope that they do not - the situation that we saw in March 2020 would not occur, where there was a considerable delay in getting assistance to SEN students, whose families were at their wits' end by end of May. That should not happen again and planning should already be under way on a contingency basis.
In terms of self-isolating students, many schools, especially at second level, are putting a lot of content online. As we have just discussed, there are problems with the availability of broadband and devices, but for self-isolating students, that is one way of continuing education during the weeks they cannot attend.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations.
My first overarching question is about calculating the number of infections within schools. Do the witnesses think the authorities fully understand the issue or the numbers involved? Let us suppose a child feels unwell in school but the parents are not told until that night. The mother then takes the child to a doctor and he or she tests positive for Covid-19. Is this counted as a school infection or a community infection? Perhaps Mr. Gillespie could clarify that.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Any case of Covid-19 has to be reported to the HSE. As I mentioned earlier, a public health risk assessment is then carried out. It is up to the HSE to contact the school and carry out contact tracing. Once a student is identified as a positive case, the HSE's public health officials follow up. That is not done by the school or the principal. However, when the principal is contacted, he or she will be able to determine the close contacts from the way the school was organised that day.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
If the infection goes through the community and is not traced back to the school, they may be counted as community cases. However, this is a HSE issue. The schools do not record this.
Therein lies the problem. The Minister came before the committee the other day and said this was a public health matter and not her responsibility. I fear these issues are falling between the Department of Education and public health bodies. We could obviously improve communications. It would be good to get clarity on where the areas of responsibility are, the nature of the interface between them and whether that interface is working.
Mr. John Boyle:
The cases are not really counted. They are counted somewhere, but we do not see that data. This is a major concern for us. We do not feel there are millions of cases, but people would like to know for sure how many people have tested positive for Covid-19 in school settings. As of yesterday's report for week 46, there were 712 detected cases. That is a very small number out of 1 million people, but it only includes the cases detected after mass testing was carried out in a school. It does not count index cases. Nobody knows how many index cases there are. Moreover, nobody knows how many primary teachers, secondary teachers, childcare workers or special needs assistants have been infected. We are only getting a breakdown of people aged over 18. That may include some leaving certificate students. We need more data. If the stakeholders need it, other sectors such as meat factories and construction sites can produce data as granular as the date of birth of those infected. We need to get that data here.
That is exactly my point. How can we address the problems and issues that have been very well articulated by the witnesses today, and which we raised with the Minister at the last hearing, if the nature or size of the problem is denied? Perhaps there is no problem at all. If there is, however, we need to address it. Whose responsibility is it to furnish us with that raw data in order to quantify the problem?
Mr. Andy Pike:
I suggest that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Health. It is an issue for the HSE. At the moment there are two reporting streams. The HSE's public health department tells us that when its officials test in schools, the positivity rate is below 3%. It looks very reassuring. The general index of cases detected between the ages of four and 18 shows that quite a high proportion of the total Covid-19 caseload comes from that age group. That suggests that the intervention in schools is not capturing all of the details of the spread of Covid-19. It does not include cases detected in the community outside of the public health investigation in schools.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
The Deputy's question is apposite. We share her frustration. We have had difficulty in getting information in recent months. I wrote to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, in September to seek a meeting. That was refused. I wrote to the Minister for Health to ask the HPSC to meet us and the Minister and the agency refused. It eventually got around to meeting with us. As I said, the quality of the information is improving but we have a road to travel. Yesterday I asked exactly the same question that Deputy Conway-Walsh asked me about situations where students go home and then visit their GPs. I asked how such cases are counted. I did not get an answer yesterday when I asked the question, but I will continue to pursue it. It is vital that what is happening in schools is accurately tabulated.
Exactly. As a committee we can support Mr. Christie in this. I suggest the committee should write to the Minister for Health and ask for that data to be furnished so we can do our job responsibly.
I am really concerned about the Minister and the Department ignoring the HPSC's advice on the use of personal protective equipment, PPE, and the requirements for ventilation. Mr. Pike and Mr. Christie mentioned this. Do we really have a situation where HPSC advice is being ignored by the Department of Education?
Mr. John Boyle:
We do not yet know the situation regarding ventilation. We know what the HPSC has recommended. We know the draft guidance that the Department has sent to us. The Department removed the sentence about the air monitoring systems from the draft advice. We issued a very strong response to the Department. We pointed out that with schools closed for two weeks at Christmas, the Department has the ideal opportunity to bring in contractors to fit air monitoring devices. It is not enough to say that schools built since 2008 have them and forget about all the rest. Every child and every worker is entitled to a well-ventilated system. It will save a fortune. A cheap monitor will tell staff when to open windows and when to switch on heating. The Government will not have to pay half as much in capitation grants to heat schools if monitoring is in place.
It is a crazy situation where a unit costing €200 or €300 cannot be fitted. As Mr. Boyle said, this work would also create employment. It would be absolutely logical to fit those units in the Christmas period. There is no point in fitting them in the middle of the summer, when windows can be opened and heating is not needed. I am afraid that we are constantly behind when we need to be in front of issues. We will have administered the vaccine to everybody before we manage to introduce some of these very simple measures. I know the virus as a whole is complex, but-----
We want to see the raw data. It is a bit like the situation with insurance companies. The data can mean anything one wants it to mean. We need to know the raw data to ensure the health, safety and well-being of everybody operating in our schools.
I thank the four witnesses for coming in. I wish to say at the outset that the reason there are not many of us in the room at one time is purely to do with the pandemic. I was watching and heard everything the witnesses said. I do not want to repeat questions that were asked before.
I can hear the witnesses' frustration. I have spoken to members of their organisations, at a local level in Galway and at a national level. I know the frustrations that are there.
I express my thanks to the trade unions, teaching staff, caretakers and so on. With that in mind, I will raise a couple of ongoing issues. I am supportive of pay equality. It is absolutely outrageous that we still have pay inequality.
I have previously been in touch with Fórsa and have gone on the picket line with school secretaries in Galway. How do the representatives from Fórsa feel this matter is progressing? What more could we do to support school secretaries?
We are obviously in an emergency and a lot of promises have been made. Some of the witnesses said there have been successes and we have moved forwards. I would like to hear a little more about that. What promises have been given to the trade unions that they believe have not been fulfilled? A promise has been made about the availability of another tranche of money for IT equipment. Do our guests have concerns about not having received that? Is that commitment not enough? I am asking about the different commitments that have been given and whether the witnesses want more commitments.
Mr. Gillespie spoke about the important issue of ventilation. I am the former chair of a school and I was also involved in starting a school. It is still in prefabs so I completely understand the problem. We have looked at getting energy grants, for instance, but schools cannot afford the co-funding element. We need to look at that issue. I would love to hear suggestions from the witnesses who have obviously thought about this a lot. We are in a pandemic at the moment but there are other issues, such as climate and biodiversity, that I am interested in and with which we also need to deal. Do the organisations represented have an understanding of what teachers and leaders within the school community believe will be essential over the next year or two?
I hope I have been clear in the questions I have asked. I did not want to repeat everything. The issue around special needs assistants is critical and we need to do more. I would love to know if the witnesses have any details in that regard. It is difficult for me to say this, as a representative of a Government party, but if they have any information to show there might be greater infection rates among SNAs, it is important that we know that. I recognise that the problem is staff representatives are not being given all information but if they have even anecdotal evidence, it would be good to know.
Mr. Andy Pike:
I will respond on the questions the Senator put to Fórsa. We have anecdotal accounts of staff self-isolating in certain locations having received positive test results. There are significant confidentiality and general data protection regulation, GDPR, issues associated with that. Suffice to say, there does not appear to be a cluster of schools or a trend that we have picked up whereby there is a significant risk to health and safety over and above everywhere else but it is worth keeping an eye on.
In respect of pay equality for school secretaries and caretakers, I should thank Senator O'Reilly, Senator O'Loughlin, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and many other past and present members of the committee for their support for the campaign to regularise the employment status of secretaries and caretakers. An agreement was reached and a clear commitment was given by the Tánaiste on 8 October. That was followed up at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, with an agreement to regularise the pay, conditions and pension provision of both groups, which is real progress. We hope to conclude an agreement by mid-February to get that subject to a ballot of members in the spring, with a view to implementation at the start of the next school year. We hope that negotiations will be co-operative and that both the Department of Education and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will not seek to obstruct progress and will honour the commitment the Government has given. The committee could keep an eye on whether, in particular, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will honour the clear commitment that was given by the Tánaiste on 8 October on behalf of all the Government parties.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
The Senator asked what are the big issues for us. The most immediate big issue that our members have relates to the whole area of close contacts. When there is a cluster or an outbreak in a school, it can be quite unnerving and unsettling for our members. The issue generally revolves around an inability to understand how close contacts are determined - who is and who is not a close contact. There have, for instance, been cases where one sibling has not been regarded as a close contact of an infected case whereas another sibling may have been.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
It is difficult to get our heads around all of that. There is an enormous communication piece to be done on that. Communication has been very poor to school leaders who have to try to disseminate the message from public health to teachers, staff members, parents and students. There is an enormous of work to be done on that to make it clear that the same procedures in establishing who is a close contact are being applied in schools as they are in every other workplace setting.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
The Senator mentioned prefabs. Almost no two schools in the country are the same. Perhaps the more newly-built schools are similar. The TUI called, in its submission, for an audit of every school to see what is needed, what bespoke needs exist for every school because a one-size-fits-all approach may not work. We could increase investment in monitors and heat exchangers but there is no point unless we have well-insulated schools. The lack of investment is being shown up.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
That is one big issue. Another is whether the workload is sustainable. Principals started working on clearing out schools in August, accompanied by teachers. They had to come in during the mid-term break because of the issue with unsafe sanitiser. They have had no rest and will have none until Christmas. Is that workload sustainable? All schools need help with unsustainable workloads. They are teaching in intense situations. It is hard to teach or learn while wearing a mask. Is that new intensity sustainable?
Mr. John Boyle:
There are 13 recommendations in the report that was published yesterday. Funnily enough, they are not costed. I believe the reason for that is that they would not cost much money to implement. They are there on a page and we need to know before Christmas that the health authorities will implement them.
I know the Senator was a chairperson of a board of management. Mr. Pike spoke about regularising pay for school secretaries, which all of our unions fully support. For me, a long-standing sore point has been in relation to the real heroes in primary education over the past six months, who have been the principal teachers. They have been owed money by successive Governments for 14 years. That should be properly acknowledged in a public service agreement in the year ahead and our primary principals and deputy principals should get that debt paid. It is another pay equality issue for us, as well as the new entrant issue.
I thank the witnesses for attending. I thank members of the trade unions, through our guests, for the great work they have done and diligence they have shown in getting schools back up and open since the end of August. I also commend members of the teaching profession on the work they have done, not only since August but throughout the summer, particularly early on when many of them were busy teaching remotely. We all recognise that the pandemic had a negative impact on the education of children. The primary concern of everyone in this room is the education of children. I thank the teaching unions and members of the teaching profession for getting children back to school because it is fundamentally important to their human and constitutional rights.
Is Mr. Christie satisfied that he has sufficient opportunity to meet the Department of Education to discuss issues of concern?
This committee cannot give the executive responses the witnesses can get from Government.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
As I mentioned earlier, access to the Department of Education was never a real issue. What was an issue prior to Hallowe'en was access to the medical advisers to which they had access in the HPSC. As I mentioned earlier, we wrote to the HPSC seeking a meeting and it was refused. We wrote to the Minister for Health seeking a meeting with the HPSC and it was still refused. The inevitable had to be bowed to. Now we are having meetings and that is great but it was only in the week before Hallowe'en that that became a feature. It will now be a weekly feature. The quality of the information we are getting is improving all the time and we are seeking clarity. Deputy Conway-Walsh asked a question that was asked as recently as yesterday at these meetings. We await the answer.
This will all be positive in terms of managing the situation in the months ahead and we look forward to that. In the area around close contacts and so on, there is still an enormous amount of communication to be done by the public health officials to keep everybody's nerves calmed and to reassure people.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
We have been meeting the Department since the closure of schools in the spring on all the work that was done. In fairness to the Department, communication channels were opened up extensively from that period on, around the issues we dealt with all summer, such as calculated grades and so on. That continued into the autumn, in terms of schools reopening. That channel of communication has not been a problem, but the other one has.
Mr. John Boyle:
On that engagement, I think we all regret what happened in August. We got so worked up throughout May, June and July and when the roadmap was published and the resource package came with it, some people in higher places took holidays. We certainly did not in the teacher unions. For a number of weeks in August, the engagement was not great and I think that is what caused the crisis that arose in October. We identified many of the things now in place as early as May. We will have to learn from that.
We are now not having weekly meetings, as Mr. Christie said, with the Department officials in their own right. We are generally meeting them with the representatives of NPHET but we are getting back on track with that too. We had one on Tuesday and we are due to have another one directly with Department officials in two weeks' time. That will be sufficient so long as the homework is done in between. We are up for helping them with the homework but we need to get the commitments from the Department that it will see it through.
Mr. John Boyle:
Sometimes one has to identify the extreme issues to explain the point. There was a particular issue in a school two weekends ago. I mentioned it earlier without mentioning the school. It was identified that up to 16 staff members could be absent for two weeks on public health advice. Thankfully, the teacher unions, the patron and school managerial authorities all have each other's numbers. The Department has a link person we can ring on Saturday and Sunday. Many phone calls are being made at this level between me and Deirdre Shanley in the Department. Ultimately, the regrettable decision was made on the Monday that the school had to close due to lack of staff. It was not necessarily on public health guidance, but they could not find 16 replacements. However, they had them by Tuesday.
There is a high level of engagement. The hotline for principals is very welcome but, as I mentioned earlier, it does not seem to work as well at weekends and Covid does not stop on Friday or Saturday. Many people are tested at weekends.
On the cross-Border issue, much more has to be done by both Administrations to make sure there is more connection between health services, North and South. When there are children transferring across from Strabane into Lifford or wherever the case may be, there has to be a proper contract-tracing system in place across both jurisdictions.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
We are coming into the winter. We have been dependent in this regard. It is all to do with confidence. When students see the windows open, they know the air is changing. It is all part of the idea of keeping Covid out of the schools. We have hand sanitisers and physical distancing but we are in a temperate climate where the weather will get colder and the schools are not fit for purpose. It is an issue but it is not the only issue.
Is Mr. Gillespie saying there is a lack of resources there? If the Minister were here, she would talk about the amount of money that is put into schools in terms of the building programme, the summer works programme and minor works. It nearly adds up to €1 billion. Is more money required?
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
Unfortunately, we cannot go backwards. The lack of investment over ten years is the problem. We have to look at what we can do going forward. That is why we called for a bespoke audit, as I mentioned, to ascertain what is needed for some schools. The schools which have been built since 2008 are energy efficient. They do not have the same problems as a school in west Clare that was opened in the 1930s. It is not one size fits all.
Cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna uilig. Gabhaimíd buíochas leo as a n-obair ar fad. I echo what others have said on our gratitude to everybody in the sector for shouldering an enormous burden at this time. I have a small involvement as chairperson on the board of management of a small rural primary DEIS school. I have seen over a long period the extra effort made by staff, not just teaching staff, but caretakers, school secretaries and so on. I endorse everything that has been said about the pay equality agenda. I emphasise the word mentioned by Mr. Gillespie, namely, "confidence". This is not just people going in to work hard to make sure everything is done right and, as far as possible, complete whatever changes were needed to reopen and keep the schools open safely. At the same time, morale boosting has to go on as well when working with children with varying levels of comprehension about what needs to be done, and parents. There is an emotional as well as task-based burden involved. I am mindful of that.
Listening to the witnesses, we note that it is the interplay of the fire-fighting that has to go on, backed up by resources from the State and the downstream consequences of longer term challenges. This interplay is not least in the area of pay equality, as the witnesses have said. In terms of a long-term vision for the future, pay equality has been a festering sore. The generation who struggle most to get the money together for a mortgage, if they can get a house, feel an enormous indignation about the differential between the resources being given to them for the same work. Very often, these people are at the stage of their working lives where we depend on the extra energy they might have. Hard questions must be asked about that. We have to look back and ask how this happened, as does everybody who had a responsibility for the misstep in that area. It is not a question of blame but of making sure it does not happen again in the long term when crises come. They will come, because these things are cyclical.
On the issues raised by the witnesses, I note and support what Fórsa and others have said to the effect that if we will talk the language of teachers and school staff being in the front line, then that surely means there needs to be important back-up, not least with the availability of vaccines. We have to protect our key people.
The TUI, among others, have spoke about online learning. I get that we need to make devices and equipment available but I noticed in my interactions with friends working in schools and so on that there is a culture in this country that children in some schools are better able to adapt to the blended, home-based learning environment than others. There is an issue of culture as well as resources. Do the witnesses have any ideas on what might done to push things in a better direction? There is inequality in the inability of certain cohorts to survive in the blended learning, home-based learning environment.
It is not just about whether they have devices or equipment; I am not suggesting the witnesses are saying that.
A couple of days ago I raised with the Minister the upset and annoyance that was felt in fee-charging schools. When the Covid-related payments to enable schools to reopen safely were being allocated there was shock in the fee-paying schools that they were to be excluded. There was a partial concession allowing them to apply for funding on a case-by-case basis. The Minister pointed out what was and what was not given. The perspective I heard from fee-charging schools was that they are not all about rich parents. Many people are making sacrifices to send their children to fee-charging schools. This is a question of children's safety. To borrow that phrase - admittedly in another context - in our Proclamation about cherishing all the children of the nation equally, there should not have been a differential. I heard from some teachers about it. I believe the ASTI is the main union involved for staff in those schools. Did the ASTI take a view of that? Did it hear from its members? Did it make any recommendation on that?
Mr. Kieran Christie:
Yes, we did. We worked closely with our colleagues in the Joint Managerial Body, JMB, to have that matter addressed. The Senator is right that there is a perception of fee-paying schools having the children of the rich, but that is not the full story, particularly in the denominational schools, which have people from all sorts of backgrounds. We took up the cudgel, together with the managerial bodies, on that matter as best we could. The resolution was less than we would have liked but at least we got some movement from the opening position of the Department, which had been harsh in the context of a pandemic.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
The Senator asked about IT facilities which are very hit-and-miss across the country. There is no overall policy. Two schools in the same town might be using different platforms. There is no shared training because they are all using different platforms. We are working with the Department on emergency-response learning. Arising from this, it is clear that there is nothing better than face-to-face teaching in school, especially for disadvantaged students. Therefore, it is really only an emergency response. If there was more joined-up thinking and if the system was more coherent, we could share training and have similar platforms. We do not want to give any company a monopoly but unfortunately there are monopolies in terms of what is happening with IT. One of the big problems is that it is not consistent across the system. We have now discovered that nothing is better than face-to-face teaching. Having students in school is the top priority.
Mr. John Boyle:
I am not sure that I agree with what the Senator said about cultural attitudes. I think the mindset over the use of technology to support education in Ireland is wrong. It is very wrong in the primary sector. We really have no tradition of the Department of Education getting the resources required and properly training teachers in the use of ICT. It is amazing what good technological programmes can do to help children with special educational needs outside school, but when it came to the lockdown, those were not really available to them because the Department of Education had not prioritised it. We need more training. As we all know from the statistics from mobile phone companies, they are adept at using ICT. To bring it into the education sphere, it needs to be resourced and there needs to be a determination that there will be a better approach to technology in education. I agree with Mr. Gillespie that everybody wants to be in school for face-to-face learning.
What issues are principals and staff close to the Border finding compared with schools on the northern side of the Border?
I was quite surprised at Mr. Gillespie's proposal in recent days about the school holidays. I am not sure if he or another TUI representative appeared on the "Today with Claire Byrne" show yesterday. I got calls from a number of nurses afterwards. They were horrified about what was said about teachers being required to wear masks. I absolutely agree that they must wear masks; that is the way it is. Doctors and nurses are wearing masks from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., in addition to full PPE gear. I imagine other public sector workers were also horrified. I had calls from teachers, including TUI members, saying they were not looking for such a change in the school holidays. Where did that proposal come from? I ask the other teacher organisations to comment on that. I should not put one against the other but I would be interested in their views on it.
I have a question on the senior DEIS schools for Mr. Boyle. I understand the Minister will make an announcement imminently on further DEIS roll-out. The Minister signalled a further announcement after the budget. I asked the same question of her here the other day because senior DEIS schools, junior DEIS schools and other DEIS schools felt totally left behind. What proposals are coming from the Department and has the INTO had any input into that?
I also asked the Minister about large primary schools with 600, 700 or 800 pupils, which normally have a principal and one deputy principal. However, a secondary school with 500 or 600 pupils could have a principal and two or three deputy principals. This issue will require some work. I asked the Minister to look at this area, which I feel is very unfair. My constituency has some very large primary schools, including one of the largest, St. Aidan's in Enniscorthy. The principal there has an enormous job to do with very little backup. I compliment the people who back him up. However, a secondary school with such large numbers would have multiple deputy principals. I ask the witnesses to comment on that.
I ask Mr. Pike about the availability of PPE for Fórsa members. HSE facilities, including nursing homes, have a week's, two weeks' or a month's supply of PPE. What forward supply do Fórsa members have? Will there be challenges in January when schools come back after Christmas, particularly if there is an outbreak of flu, which hopefully will not happen?
Considering the work done by the HSE and public health bodies on the reopening of schools, what lessons does Mr. Christie believe have been learned? Are ASTI members doing their work in a more streamlined way now compared with September?
I compliment the principals, teachers and boards of management in all the schools. They have done a fantastic job and the country should be proud of them. Teachers have gone up in my estimation because of the work they have done. Having been off since the outbreak of Covid in March, they all wanted to get back to work. Over the summer months great work was done by principals, staff and members of boards of management, who are often forgotten about and hold significant responsibility.
Maybe if he answers those questions, I will come back to him. Apologies to Mr. Gillespie-----
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
There was also a massive petition on the issue. The response of the TUI was that it merited consideration. We never demanded it or proposed it, which seems to be what has been quoted as happening. We answered press queries and we said it merited consideration, and the reason for that is because that Monday and Tuesday are not high educational days. They are days that traditionally have a lot of things happening that are part of the hidden curriculum, for example, the Christmas show, choir activities, and perhaps religious ceremonies, depending on the school in question. We said that it might be highlighted that these activities would be missing because of the early closure of schools, and that could upset people. We know some of our members were upset, and others, like ourselves, said that it was worth considering. However, we went no further than that. If one looks at the petition, some talked about the four extra days. In other words, the petition - not the TUI - was saying that by missing the day and a half - the Monday and Tuesday - with the school closing on the Friday, that would provide the 14 days up to New Year's Day. All the TUI said was that it was worth considering, and yet there was a flurry about our statement. That is all we said.
Mr. John Boyle:
When one thinks about it, in recent years there has been a standardised school year, and every single teacher works every day God gives, within the standardised school year. However, in the middle of a pandemic, these kinds of standardisations do not always work. Had there been that little bit of flexibility it would have helped. I know teachers from the west of Ireland who have not seen their parents since August, and I know many children in schools who have not seen their grandparents. If the early closure meant that before 6 January, women's Christmas, they could visit these relatives, it might have been worth considering. However, as I have said, we were very aware that in the health sector, workers there have been working around the clock and will not be off over Christmas, and that debate has passed.
On the issue of the DEIS programme, I want to emphasise that I think that if the Government was back where it was on budget day, it probably would not have reduced class sizes in DEIS at all. It would have left the issue alone for a couple of weeks and made its budgetary statement that there was €5 million over a full year being made available for DEIS, and that that money would be used to try to deal with the staffing differentials, rather than single out the senior schools and not provide any reductions for the vertical schools, in which there are many children up to sixth class as well.
On the issue of Enniscorthy and the príomhoide and leas-phríomhoide, about three years ago the then Department for Education and Skills had €7 million available to it for school leadership. We get on really well with ASTI, TUI and Fórsa, but I do not believe I have ever been angrier than at that particular time because two thirds of the money was given to post-primary schools and one third to primary schools. The result of that was that St. Eunan's College in Letterkenny announced its new principal and its two new administrative deputy principals on the front of the Donegal Democrat, while the school in Enniscorthy, which used to have a support team of about 30 promoted teachers, now only has ten support teachers for the principal because of the moratorium. That money should have been shared out more equally. It goes back a long way, probably to 1966, when all the money was put into post-primary schools by Deputy Donogh O'Malley and his Department, and rightly so, but at that particular time, post-primary schools were so far behind that they had to get the investment. But who lost out at that time? Primary schools. That has been the case for some time. The Chair referred to the case of a príomhoide in Enniscorthy. I do not know if he is aware of this, but there are two big schools in Enniscorthy, and the principal teachers in those schools earn €15,000 less than principal teachers in secondary schools of the same size with the same number of staff. That is a gross inequality and I referred to it earlier. There is a lot to be done yet, and it will not all be done due to the pandemic, but I am glad that the Chair raised the issue and I thank him for his support of primary principals.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
Picking up on the questions asked by the Chair, he mentioned the Border counties and asked if there were issues specific to them regarding the running of schools. We were hearing that there were, and there have been, particularly given the differences in restrictions across the Border, in areas such as Donegal, Derry and Cavan and Monaghan, and they did lead to some confusion, but ultimately the procedures in place in schools were followed. What could be controlled within a school was controlled in terms of our own restrictions down here.
On the issue raised by the Chair regarding school closure on 18 December, the position of the ASTI on that and on similar questions throughout the pandemic has been consistent, which is that we will be guided by the public health advice around all of these questions.
The Chair also asked about lessons learned on public health. If I were to identify one - and I mentioned it earlier in my presentation, so I will not labour the point - it concerns communication, particularly around close contacts in schools, how close contacts are identified, and that the same procedures are applied in schools as are applied in supermarkets, garages or any other workplaces.
Finally, we share the sentiments of the Chair in respect of principals, teachers and school boards of management around the country. When the history of this period comes to be written, education will have been seen to have stepped up to the plate.
Mr. Andy Pike:
I will make this very brief. The issue that struck a chord with our members around the suggestion of early closing was that we have a group of members who are, in effect, restricting their own movements because of the risk of Covid-19; they are not seeing elderly relatives and have not done so for a considerable period of time. It was not so much that members were saying that they wanted a few more days off school, it was a question of whether a change in arrangements would allow them a bit of space in terms of being Covid safe. However, it is not an issue on which we have received much communication. Where it was supported, it was on the basis of the question of whether, if this happened, it would it mean that it would be safer for teachers to see 80-year-old relatives or not. That was the query that members brought to us.
On the question about PPE, if we were describing more complex PPE that one would find in an intensive care unit or Covid ward in an acute general hospital, those stocks are very carefully monitored because the equipment is quite expensive. What we are looking at in terms of schools is the very first rung on the face mask ladder. We managed to source a seemingly unending supply at a cost of around 20 cent per mask, and we were told by the suppliers that we spoke to, having had to start supplying the masks to our own members, that stocks are plentiful at the moment and the masks are warehoused around the world. We do not foresee any potential difficulties with the PPE that is appropriate for schools, but that might not be the same in the case of respirator masks that are used in acute healthcare settings, which is a completely different piece of equipment.
I will allow members to speak for one minute, and I ask them to direct their questions to one or two witnesses, who will have one minute to reply. I will call on Senator Mullen first, and I ask Deputy Ó Laoghaire to get ready to ask his question, as I will call on him after Deputy Conway-Walsh.
I do not have a question, but wish to clarify something that perhaps I did not explain well earlier. When I was talking about culture, I was thinking about the unfortunate fact that not every child has the same home life or culture of commitment to education, and some schools were certainly struggling in their ability to get their student cohort to make the most of what online presenting did offer. It was not always a case of not having the right equipment. That was my only point; I am not sure there is necessarily any disagreement about it.
I will go back to what I was asking the Minister a few days ago regarding close contacts and the burden that is placed on principals in not being to be able to tell people whether they are a close contact or not. My question is this: what is the point of telling principals, if they are then told that they cannot tell anybody or share that information with other teachers within in the school; and why is that not being done, particularly in the case of a teacher who is actually in the classroom?
I might send correspondence to the Chair of the joint Oireachtas committee on health pertaining to some of the issues raised by Deputy Conway-Walsh in her question. If the witnesses wish to comment on the question, there is no problem, but from an internal point of view, I think that maybe the committee on health might be able to reply to the question for the teaching unions.
Can Mr. Boyle ensure his microphone is turned on?
Mr. John Boyle:
The advice we give our members has helped because now the principal teacher goes to the classroom to speak to the key adults who are working with the children. One does not necessarily have to identify the child's name. The pod system works really well in primary schools. One can identify the pod and at that point do a proper risk assessment. The whole situation has been a massive burden on principals from start to finish and that is why I am giving them such a big shout out at this meeting.
My question is specific enough and applies to all unions, so picking a union out of a hat, I will direct it to Mr. Boyle of the INTO. It relates to when there is more than one case of Covid in a family. I understood the guidance was that children should return to school after completing self-isolation. However, if there were two cases crossing over in a household children should return after the notice of the last case. I gather from contact with people on the ground, schools and parents, that guidance has been given that a child can return to school, even though there is a positive case in the household, once he or she has done his or her 14 days self-isolation and is symptom free. It seems there is some confusion around this. Has the guidance changed and has this been adequately communicated? It certainly has created confusion on the ground in a number of communities.
Mr. John Boyle:
As Deputy Ó Laoghaire is aware, we looked for a public awareness campaign at the beginning of the Hallowe'en break so that if there were any uncertainties when people came back, everybody in the system would be clear on this. Unfortunately, we did not get that, although we have got it since. We have three videos by Dr. Abigail Collins one for staff, one for parents and one for principals but they were not communicated widely. The videos were there for a number of days before they hit the schools, so there are time lags.
The biggest concern was that people were getting confused between close contacts, positive cases and who should be going where. There is a lot to take in when there are 1 million people circulating in the school sector. We are happy enough that guidance is being provided but the key question is whether it is being applied consistently and whether everyone is receiving it.
On the issue of travel, I certainly hope that no family that travels abroad during Christmas is under the impression that they can send their child back to school the day after they set foot on this island. That is why we need more public awareness around this issue.
I have two short questions. I am not sure whether Mr. Boyle or Mr. Gillespie mentioned children travelling overseas during Christmas. Is there anything the witnesses think the Department of Education should be doing now to highlight the fact that children have to self-isolate when they come back? There was an issue in September when some kids returned from overseas two or three days before the school started back and they returned to school straightaway.
I raised the issue of capitation grants with the Minister when she attended the committee previously. I have spoken to school principals and staff about hand sanitisation and whether it will become the norm in schools going forward. There will be a huge financial burden if it is to become the norm. It has proven effective against the spread of 'flu and things like that. What are the witnesses' thoughts on this? Do they believe hand sanitisation will be the norm going forward? Would they like it to be continued for the safety of pupils and teachers? I would welcome a brief comment on this from the teacher unions.
Mr. John Boyle:
Being honest about it, we would not want it to continue for too long because hand sanitisation is a Covid issue really. The 'flu vaccine would help as well during the 'flu season but we are worried about budgeting for sanitising. We got money to do us up to Christmas and when putting this grant together, the Department gave the impression it was taking into account all the initial installation costs. This was code that the Department would reduce the grant dramatically after Christmas. We are hoping this does not happen because schools have told us they ran out of this money before Hallowe'en.
Mr. Kieran Christie:
I take a somewhat more neutral view on this than Mr. Boyle. Across the whole Covid issue, we have learned things in all aspects of our lives that will be brought forward into society long after Covid is put into the dust bin of history. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later. It might be the case that sanitisation will be more widespread based on public health advice and if that is the case then, that is the case and it will be right across society, schools and everywhere else.
Mr. Michael Gillespie:
I agree. Public health will become the priority. As I said earlier, viruses mutate and there could be a new virus in a year or two. We will have to change the way we look at the whole of society and how we design our schools in the future, so, yes, that will be brought forward.
If someone is returning, having travelled abroad, the public health advice is very clear. One must isolate for 14 days and one must obey that. As I said in my statement, keeping schools open is not just about teachers, pupils and students. The whole community must buy into keeping schools open.
Mr. Andy Pike:
Infection control is an ongoing issue for special needs assistants in terms of the provision of intimate care, so good hand washing and a good standard of hand hygiene is something that needs to be maintained by that staff group on a permanent basis. If hand sanitisation remains in schools, it will assist that. There is no doubt it brings with it its own problems of supply and funding but as a public health measure, it should be supported on a more widespread basis.
I genuinely and sincerely thank Mr. Christie of the ASTI, Mr. Boyle of the INTO, Mr. Pike of Fórsa and Mr. Gillespie of the TUI. I ask that they bring a message back to their members that this committee thanks all the principals and staff for the work they have done over the past number of months by keeping schools open in a very safe manner. I know there are many challenges and I hope the Department and the Ministers will listen to the witnesses' concerns about these challenges, which they highlighted today.
The meeting is adjourned until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 November 2020 when we will resume discussion on this topic with the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, the National Parents' Council Primary and the National Parents' Council Post Primary.