Schools may be forced to close over the winter months if the weather gets too cold due to ventilation and heating issues, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), said teachers and students have been wearing their coats in class to stay warm since the colder weather began.
He told the Education Committee that hygiene and ventilation facilities need to be upgraded, and the union “remained concerned” over the differential capacity of schools to implement key aspects of the Covid-19 response plan.
He said: “As the colder weather has set in, keeping many classrooms warm, ensuring they will be appropriately ventilated, has been a big problem in schools.
“Teachers and students are there in their coats in many instances.
“If a period of cold weather comes in the coming weeks or months, many schools are likely to have to close for the duration.”
He also said there is a lack of communication protocols in place in schools where an outbreak of Covid-19 occurs, which needs to be addressed, and he added prioritising schools for rapid testing and tracing is also needed.
Mr Christie was one of four representatives from teachers and other school workers’ trade unions who appeared before the Education Committee on Thursday to discuss the issues affecting schools during the pandemic.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) also warned some schools may be forced to close due to a lack of proper ventilation and heating during winter.
Its general secretary Michael Gillespie said many second-level school buildings are “not fit for purpose”.
He called for a full audit of each school to establish and quantify the resources needed to keep them open.
“TUI is calling for the Department of Education to take the advice of the HPSC (Health Protection Surveillance Centre) and install air quality meters in every classroom – this will ensure that student and teachers are not forced to teach and learn in freezing cold classrooms,” he said.
“In the medium term, and to future-proof our education system, we must re-conceptualise school design. The current crisis has demonstrated the importance of infrastructure that is fit for purpose.”
The committee was also told that teachers should be given priority for the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
'TUI members will continue to operate in accordance with public health advice but Government must provide us with the certainty, clarity, information, resources and ongoing investment required keep schools open.' - TUI General Secretary Michael Gillespie addresses Oireachtas pic.twitter.com/5LCDrjsc8q— Teachers' Union Ire. (@TUIunion) November 19, 2020
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said the Government should have been provided a free flu vaccine to all teachers, and the union “insist” that when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, all those who work in schools are “prioritised”.
He also said the Government must send a strong message to families who travel abroad over Christmas that children will have to restrict their movements when they return in January in line with public health advice prior to going back to school.
TDs and senators also heard calls from the unions for the Government to undertake a further review of the requirement for high-risk teachers to attend schools during the pandemic.
Mr Christie said he was “dismayed” that pregnant teachers and other vulnerable staff and students are being required to attend class.
“In every school there are teachers and students who are vulnerable in terms of their health status or particular personal circumstances, including pregnancy,” he said.
“The ASTI is dismayed that many of these members have been 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.
📢 Priority access to Covid vaccine essential for school workers â INTO addresses Oireachtas Committee:@johnboyle_INTO today emphasised the urgent need for more robust & tangible Government support for the primary sector— INTO (@INTOnews) November 19, 2020
“Teachers are essential workers in the education system. It is essential that schools are safe spaces for teachers and students: health, safety and welfare must be the priority of school management and the Department of Education and Skills.
“Teachers’ workload and focusing on their wellbeing underpin the overall policy in ensuring that schools are open in a manner which is both safe and sustainable.”
Andy Pike of Forsa, the trade union representing Special Needs Assistants (SNAs), said it remains concerned about a lack of clarity regarding the provision of personal protective equipment to school staff, specifically SNAs and bus escorts who cannot maintain social distance when assisting children with disabilities.
“After a considerable delay the HPSC published advice in September which 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,” he said.
“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,” Mr Pike added.