Thursday, 30 July 2020
Opening of Schools and Calculated Grades: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to speak this evening. First, I wish the Minister the best of luck in her new role. She is taking on the position at probably the most difficult time imaginable and I assure her she will have my full support should she undertake measures that will make our schools safe for students, staff and parents.
The health and welfare of our students must be our number one priority. We cannot afford to take any chances with the well-being of our students and we cannot put a price on it. Whatever measures need to be taken now must be taken regardless of the costs. This pandemic crisis has showed us all how vulnerable we really are. Unfortunately, we may have to live with this dreadful virus moving forward. Taking this approach now, we must ensure we implement the right measures to safeguard students and staff in schools and colleges now and into the future.
I have spoken to a lot of teaching staff and SNAs over recent weeks and months. Speaking on their behalf, I know they are extremely worried about returning to work in a few weeks' time. They have raised many issues with me which they feel must be addressed for schools to be a safe environment for students, staff and parents.
I would like to outline some of the issues that have been raised with me and I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond to them this evening. If not, a written reply would be fine. The Department needs to confirm that the use of personal protective equipment, PPE, is recommended and not simply optional for special needs assistants, SNAs, in classrooms that have social distancing of 1 m. More guidelines are needed on infection control issues for SNAs carrying out personal and intimate care. Greater clarity is required in respect of the identification of students with symptoms of Covid and procedures for ensuring they do not attend school. Schools need to work on assembling substitute panels as a matter of urgency as staff may need to be vetted. Otherwise, replacements will not be available in time. More SNA staff will be needed if the pods and bubble approach is to be successful because many SNAs move between different classes and year groups, which could undermine the integrity of the pods. The SNAs I spoke to feel the guidance glosses over this issue and that more SNAs will be required if the objective is to minimise interaction.
I thank the Minister for making €15 million available for replacement personnel who will cover for staff with underlying conditions or Covid-related sickness. I also acknowledge that her Department has made additional funding available for special educational needs provision by way of National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, posts and special educational needs school transport and bus escorts, all of which are very welcome. As I said, insufficient funding must not stand in the way of making our schools safe for students and staff. To be clear, we cannot put a price on the safety of our children while they attend school. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is precious and we must treasure it. In fairness to the Government, it is providing substantial funds to fight the virus. It is important that we use the money wisely and spend it on behalf of the taxpayer in the best possible way.
We are all learning something new each day in the fight against this deadly virus. I draw attention to an indigenous Irish company that is providing solutions to schools and hospitals to make them safe from Covid and other viruses. The company in question is a spin-off enterprise of Martin McVicar, who brought us the Combi-Ventilate some months ago. That device allowed a single ventilator to be split into numerous ventilators, which in turn allowed more patients be treated in intensive care units at the same time. His new company, Copper-Cover, has developed a unique process whereby pure copper can be installed on what are called high-volume touch surfaces. Such surfaces include door handles, push plates on doors and grab rails. This is an important innovation because it is scientifically proven that viruses cannot survive on copper surfaces. I understand there are more than 600,000 research and medical papers to back up the process. If a surface can be treated with pure copper, it is automatically safe from virus contamination. As we all know, one of the most common ways that the Covid virus is transmitted is through touch surfaces. If we could make all door handles, grab rails and other high-volume touch surfaces in schools and hospitals safe from Covid contamination, the impact would be very significant, not only for students and patients but also for staff and visitors. I have forwarded the company's details to the Minister and I am sure its directors would be delighted to meet her and her officials to discuss the potential this process has to make our schools, hospitals and care homes safe environments for all involved. Indigenous Irish companies like Copper-Cover can play a major part in the fight against this dreadful virus. As I said, Covid may potentially become a part of day-to-day life in Ireland and the rest of the world for some time to come. If that is the case, we will have to learn to live in a new way.
I acknowledge the additional €350 million in funding announced in the roadmap for reopening schools. We must get the whole process of reopening right and I emphasise again that a lack of funding must not stand in the way. I wish the Minister the very best of luck in her new role at this most difficult time. She has an enormous job on her hands but I believe that if we all work together, we will get through this. This is not the time for political point-scoring. It is a time for us to work together for the greater good. Our front-line staff and our citizens have all been heroic since this pandemic hit. The reducing numbers of daily cases of infections and deaths are testament to this. We in this Chamber must follow their example and work together as a team. I assure the Minister of my support for her efforts to get students and staff back to schools safely. I also assure her that should any decisions be taken which I feel are wrong, I will be the first to raise them with her. I believe in a healthy democracy where we can have open and frank debates on the issues of the day. I look forward to working with the Minister over the coming years.