Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
I raise the issue of Covid measures in education settings. First, while I welcome the Minister for Education's announcement regarding substitute teachers, we are 16 school days away from Christmas when schools will be breaking up anyway. We need to know the timelines in terms of substitute teachers. Can teachers expect substitute teachers to be available from Monday of next week? We need the specifics because there are too many vague announcements that do not get to where the people are, on the front line, like teachers and staff. Parents, students and staff will appreciate the long-awaited recognition of the crisis that they have been battling for weeks but more clarity is needed. More clarity is also needed for secondary schools on how this will work in practice for them. The ASTI has been calling for that clarity as well but people should not have to call for clarity continuously. They should be given clear and timely messages. It takes mental gymnastics to accept that there is a crisis with substitute teachers caused by teachers being out sick while not accepting that Covid transmission is a reality in the school setting. Things do not add up for people. That is the problem and it is why the Government is losing so many people.
It is absolutely vital that we do not lose social solidarity across the nation. People are always willing to play their part but they need to see the Government communicating clearly with them and playing its part as well. That has not been the case heretofore. In fact, it seems that when decisions are finally made, the Government stops to slap itself on the back, as if to say that everything is grand and it did a great job. What we need are timely decisions. The procrastination is killing people. People are waiting for decisions to be made. I spoke today to some business people in retail and the pub trade who just want to know what will happen. They do not want to be taking on staff or bringing in orders; they want clarity around what is happening. If the Minister has information, he needs to communicate it and help people to make sense of things. They will do anything that makes sense to them but a lot of things do not, unfortunately.
The best way to keep our schools open is to be straightforward with people, particularly parents and staff, given how much responsibility they are being asked to take on. A number of steps are needed. First, the Government must consider providing HEPA filters for every classroom or room where children are congregating. It is better to be safe than sorry. Hopefully, we will come out the other side of Covid at some stage but we know that adequate ventilation and air filtration is not an optional extra in a pandemic but is vital to maintaining health and well-being. How can teachers be expected to teach and children to learn if they are fearful of the environment they are in? These filters would be a worthwhile investment providing clean air within schools, regardless of a pandemic.
Second, the HSE should be given a clearly defined role in contact tracing in the primary school setting. That must be done. The changes that were made in September were wrong. Certainly issues needed to be addressed but we cannot continue on without the HSE having a clearly defined role. We also need to know how the antigen test plans will work. How will the tests be distributed? Are people going to be waiting for days for antigen tests? All of these issues could be cleared up in a few hours.
Third, the Minister for Education needs to reverse the decision to remove banked special education hours. Special education hours will continue to be lost if the banking system is not brought back in. Children with special educational needs were among the biggest losers of the lockdown. Indeed, the Minister launched the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, in recognition of the impact the lockdown had on their learning development but at the same time, she is not allowing schools to safeguard special education teaching hours. That really needs to be addressed. I would strongly urge the Government to consider the three points I have just outlined. We have always tried to work constructively on these vitally important issues and will continue to do so.
I am also concerned about third level students who have had a very rough ride throughout Covid. They have not been prioritised for a return to in-person teaching in the same way as primary and post-primary students. Those who are fearful about sitting in halls to do exams must be listened to as well. We must put measures in place, we must do so quickly and decisively and we must communicate clearly.