Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on education will have its first meeting on 26 November. The committee will oversee implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. I have had regular engagement and meetings with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science at Cabinet and bilaterally to discuss priorities for the education sector, particularly the management of the impacts of Covid on primary, secondary and third level education. Similarly, I also have regular engagement with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Affairs on priority issues relating to early-years education and childcare.
The Taoiseach said something earlier with which I thoroughly agree, which is that if Covid-19 is widespread in the community, the consequences are felt in the hospitals. We are seeing them in hospitals throughout the country. In that context, we should be concerned about the fact that the reduction in the number of cases appears to have stalled in a worrying manner. While everybody supports the objective of keeping schools open, there are significant concerns about whether the contact tracing of positive cases in schools is adequate to establish whether schools are acting as a vector for transmission of the virus.
I will put it simply. When we closed down the schools during the last period of restrictions, we got community transmission down to almost zero. They have been left open this time and now the efforts to reduce community transmission are stalling. I am not saying the two are necessarily connected, but we need to know. Teachers and parents are expressing concerns that children or teachers who would see themselves as close contacts of confirmed cases are not being contacted by public health teams or not being deemed as such because of the narrow definition of close contacts being operated, which is out of sync with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, close contact protocols. Does this not need to be examined?
My colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, proposed earlier this week that consideration be given to closing the schools a little earlier this Christmas. It is something the Government should consider seriously. Most schools will close with a half day on either Monday, 21 December or Tuesday, 22 December. I do not believe it will make a massive difference if they were closed on Friday, 18 December, in the run up to Christmas. It is a day and a half for half of the schools and a half day for the others. It could potentially be made up later in the year. If implemented, it would give a clear seven days before Christmas Day in which movements could be restricted to a point that would reduce the potential exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to Covid-19. That would make it safer for families and loved ones to see each other over the Christmas season, during which I believe the Government will have to reopen certain aspects of society anyway. The Government should run in line with that. The Taoiseach can follow my logic. School communities, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, secretaries, caretakers and support staff have made major sacrifices and have been under massive pressure. It would be a boost for morale and would support public health measures. The unions have also supported this proposal. The Minister said she was not going to do it, but she might be rowing back a little to consider it. All I ask is that it is considered by the Government.
Second, and briefly, will the Taoiseach ensure that SNAs in the sector receive appropriate personal protective equipment, PPE? I am aware of several schools whose allocation simply does not provide for SNAs in their PPE funding.
I have previously raised with the Taoiseach the urgent need for remote education for children who live with a medically vulnerable person. Our offices have received correspondence from distraught parents with very serious medical conditions who are terrified of their children bringing home Covid-19. Where the threat to people's health is so serious that families decide to keep their children at home, parents are left with no option but to register with Tusla for homeschooling. This is not the route they wish to take, nor are they equipped to deliver it. Tusla figures show that 1,000 families applied to homeschool their children in August and September this year, an increase of approximately 500% on the same period last year.
The Department of Education provides an entitlement for children with very high-risk medical conditions to receive remote tuition, yet the children of parents with the same very high-risk conditions have been left in a most precarious position by the Government. The Taoiseach gave a commitment to investigate this matter when I last raised it with him, and I am disappointed with his response. Reiterating public health guidelines to these people on wearing masks and hand washing, valuable as they are, is not a constructive engagement on such a serious matter. These families are greatly impacted as, for them, it is a matter of life and death. The Government has not engaged with the core issue and, as a result, Tusla is now dealing with a backlog of hundreds of applications which have to be screened. The answer to this is that the Minister for Education should instruct her officials to issue a circular, develop that in conjunction with the HSE and enable schools to provide remote teaching for these pupils.
Last month, the Minister admitted to me that it was common practice for PhD students to be required to do five hours teaching work per week without payment. These are workers who are working through the lockdown. They are running tutorials, laboratories and classes in the universities, but are unpaid while students pay extortionate fees to be there. Does the Taoiseach think it is acceptable to expect people to work for free in the universities? I highlighted this two weeks ago and I have since been in contact with more people who are affected. Maria Delaney has written excellent articles on noteworthy.ieexposing the low pay and poor conditions facing these workers and others in the universities. This is hidden exploitation taking place under the Taoiseach's nose.
I highlighted the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, in particular, and it appears that matters there have gone from bad to worse. This week I was informed that PhD students who had desk space in the Hardiman Research Building, but who have been working from home, have been told they must travel to the university and clear their desks or their stuff will be binned. They are told to ignore the 5 km travel restriction, as it does not apply. Worst of all, there was no consultation with these student workers about this. They had no representation on the committee that decided it, again highlighting the shoddy way they are treated. Postgraduate workers are playing an essential role in keeping the colleges running. If they decided to strike, not a single university or course would be able to operate. In Sweden, PhD students are considered to be workers and are paid a wage for their work. Surely it is time for us to do the same and pay them.
First, I am disappointed with the presentation made by Deputy Boyd Barrett, in which he posited the coincidence between the reopening of schools and the rise in the number of cases. He has been a long-term advocate of looking at these issues from an informed perspective. We have done our research, as have NPHET and the HSE. The level of cases after considerable testing in schools is 2% at post-primary level and 2.5% at primary level.
It is not a narrow definition at all. Equally, in terms of international research in Denmark, France and other countries, there is no evidence that schools act as a vector for the transmission of the disease. The evidence is not strong in that regard. It has been a good thing for children that we reopened the schools. We should all support that unequivocally. Being out of school will damage children in the long term. In particular, children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be damaged and they will become long-term victims of Covid-19. We had to do it safely, with strong protocols and a strong approach. A great deal of work has been undertaken in that regard.
I have spoken to school principals.
I spoke to one last week, who volunteered to me that since Halloween he has found a very big improvement, and he has found his interaction with the HSE very constructive and positive. He said that without my having to ask him. He was appreciative of the resources that had been allocated in terms of the minor capital grants that post-primary schools got for the first time ever this year. They got the second tranche of funding this year for next year. The money has been allocated to them early to prepare for 2021. It is very significant funding that post-primary schools would not have received in the past to help them to get through Covid-19. Primary schools have received the minor capital grant, but we expanded it this year. It has had a beneficial impact on families and on children, so we must do everything we possibly can to keep the incidence of the virus down.
Regarding Deputy Kelly's question, within reason schools generally work their own school calendars and the Department has always been loath to instruct every school in the country to organise its holidays within specific dates. That is something on which the Minister has given her position. I thank everybody in the entire school community - teachers, SNAs, school secretaries and caretakers - for the extraordinary work that they are doing. I also thank parents and children, for whom it has been very difficult as well. It has been a different experience from it normally would be.
In terms of postgraduate workers, they operate at different levels. Some postgraduates receive bursaries and others have contracts. Early postgraduate students might get stipends for tutorials. There are different levels and grades of postgraduate students. I will pursue the issue with NUIG. Not all postgraduates are workers. When I was a postgraduate, I did my tutorials and I got a stipend but I never saw myself as a worker. That said, there are PhD students who work in science laboratories and on research teams. When I met with them, the big issue was career pathways in research. That is where there is a need to give greater certainty and clarity because we want people to pursue careers in science-----
I apologise to the Deputy, but the truth is that many of the questions take so long that there is inadequate time left to answer. We might need to look at how we structure this process.