I thank the Chair and members of the committee. The Teachers Union of Ireland is pleased to have this opportunity to discuss with the special committee the question of effecting a safe return to school as early as possible for the greatest possible number of students. We would also, in due course, welcome an opportunity to discuss with the committee these issues as they relate to further and higher education.
We are conscious of the fact that, notwithstanding the significant efforts made to ensure continuity and quality of service in an online environment, nothing can match or satisfactorily replace the live setting of a classroom.
Therefore, it is our ambition to have a return to those classrooms as soon as possible. Until yesterday, we lacked clear direction about social distancing, and this lack impeded progress. The architecture of schools is predicated on congregating students, precisely what the current crisis demands that we avoid. Therefore some defined metric regarding social distancing was needed and, as of yesterday, we have that metric and we can now plan accordingly.
The TUI is also concerned that some of the public discourse is peddling a myth that the virus is not transmitted by children. While there is evidence that young children are less susceptible to the virus than other cohorts of the population, it is also the case that older students have been shown both to contract and to transmit the virus. Indeed, in a post-primary context the word "child" itself is problematic. To consider students from their mid-teens on as children is, in this context, a mistake. They are young adults and therefore carry with them, as do other adults, the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
As teachers our members have a duty of care to their students. As a teachers’ trade union, we also owe a duty of care to our members. In both cases that duty consists first and foremost of seeking to safeguard their health. If Government wants to approach the reopening of schools with realism and to protect the safety of all concerned, it must provide some additional resourcing. For example, the budget available to schools for cleaning is wholly inadequate, and that is even in a pre-Covid context. Proper cleaning is essential and, therefore, so also is a proper budget for cleaning. Principal teachers need support. Documentation is replete with references to "the school": the school will do this and the school will do that. The school does nothing. People do. Specifically, in the context of preparation for reopening, it is assumed that the principal teacher will do everything. Principal teachers need support, and quickly.
A very significant adjustment will be required in terms of where and how to accommodate students. If a class of 30 sixth year students, for example, can be accommodated only by using two classrooms simultaneously, the requisite technology for both live and remote delivery must be in place. There must also be a presiding teacher in each room. The TUI has suggested that to meet the need for additional staff, students in the second year of the professional masters of education programme be fast tracked into paid teaching. This has happened in respect of other professions.
There are also students and teachers who will not yet be able to return. An indeterminate proportion of students and teachers will not be able safely to return because of underlying health conditions or because they are otherwise in high-risk categories. Provision will have to be made for both cohorts. There are hard-to-reach students and it is common knowledge that this cohort has not been able to engage or simply has not engaged with the online delivery of classes. These hard-to-reach students often suffer multiple disadvantage. It must be a priority of the system to have these students re-engage. Failure to achieve this will result in deficits that will haunt many of them through the entirety of their lives. Merely reopening schools will not of itself suffice for this cohort. A structured, targeted programme of interventions will be needed.
Another cohort of students for whom the period of school closure has presented a very particular challenge is students with special educational needs. For many of them, the absence of the social milieu of the school has been extremely disruptive and confusing. Customised interventions and supports will be required to re-establish the connections that have been severed. There may also be a need for atypical timetables and we will have to plan for the possibility of a partial return or a staggered return. Consideration may have to be given to prioritising certain groups within the school community, perhaps those going into sixth year, first years, or students with special educational needs or those who suffer the most acute disadvantage.
A further consequence of the move from on-site to online teaching and learning is that certain elements of the curriculum have not been and cannot for the foreseeable future be completed. Especially affected have been practical subjects. It would seem harsh, even at this remove, to expect students to face examinations next year that assume completion of syllabi. Therefore, adjustments will have to be made and they are probably best made by using the assessment instruments rather than by specific curtailment of syllabi.
In regard to school transport, while it may be logistically difficult to arrange for students to be transported to school, it is vital that it be done as far as it can be done.
For example, if a student who already suffers disadvantage does not have access to school transport, there is not the slightest chance that he or she will be able to re-engage. Moreover, in rural areas where there is often deep seated and intergenerational socioeconomic disadvantage few, if any, alternatives exist.