The Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN, is the professional body for the leaders of Irish primary schools and provides a variety of supports and services to almost 6,500 principals and deputy principals. Since 2001, I have been principal of St. Patrick's national school in Diswellstown, Dublin 15, a mainstream school with 44 staff and almost 800 pupils. I was appointed as chief executive officer of the IPPN in 2017.
As outlined in our submission to the committee, on 13 May the IPPN made a detailed submission to the Department on the reopening of schools. Progress has been made in several aspects of that submission, including the provision of some guidelines and templates and the preparation of training for staff. We were reassured that our recommendation to pause new initiatives and school inspections until at least early 2021 is being implemented. This respects school staff, who must prioritise getting their schools up and running in very changed circumstances.
An important clarification to make is that schools are not reopening as such; school buildings are reopening. Staff and, in particular, school leaders have been working incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances since school buildings were closed on 12 March to facilitate remote learning and do all the other planning that must happen in all schools throughout the year. School leaders will also be working throughout the summer to prepare their schools to welcome back safely the pupils and staff in late August and early September. The language around this is important.
The IPPN has been working closely with our fellow education stakeholders, primarily the management bodies and the INTO but also with education centres and the Professional Development Service for Teachers, to provide a suite of supports relating to remote learning and the reopening of school buildings for summer provision and the new school year.
The IPPN has developed a comprehensive resource bundle, which was submitted to the committee yesterday, and will be available to school leaders. The resource bundle collates all of the guidance, planning and other templates, checklists, frequently asked questions and training materials that have been developed. This will assist schools to develop and implement their plans to ensure a safe return to the school building for all members of their school community. We have committed to keeping this resource updated as further guidance and resources are approved by the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and the Health and Safety Authority.
While there are any number of aspects we could cover today, in the interest of brevity I will highlight the ten key recommendations and challenges that have yet to be fully addressed. The Department of Education and Skills issued guidelines for the reopening of schools on 29 June and the HSE and HPSC interim recommendations for the reopening of schools were issued on 1 July. There is insufficient detail on a number of matters, including the deployment of shared special education teachers within and among schools, school transport, the funding of cleaning and personal protective equipment, additional training and staffing to cover absence.
A critical issue is the need for additional leadership and management time to be provided to teaching principals to flexibly meet the needs of their schools. Simply put, they cannot be expected to teach as well as lead their schools through the reopening phase. To enable schools to manage during the reopening phase, substitute cover is needed for every absence. Schools also need to have flexibility in how they allocate staff to comply with social distancing requirements, including arrangements for shared special education and teachers of English as an additional language who work in multiple classrooms or in multiple schools, while ensuring the most vulnerable children receive the required support.
Additional funding must be provided to schools upfront to enable them to implement the guidelines in full. In addition, the centralised procurement and distribution to all schools of appropriate and sufficient PPE and cleaning materials prior to their full reopening in the autumn would greatly alleviate schools of a significant burden over the summer months. The proposed procurement framework is a positive development but must include PPE as well as sanitiser. This will be critical, especially for special schools and mainstream schools enrolling children with special needs.
Training specific to schools is needed, particularly in supporting children with special educational needs, as specific concerns and issues will pose significant challenges for school staff with regard to intimate care needs. In addition, specific training is required for cleaning staff, staff representatives, compliance officers and school leaders. The training being prepared by the HSA needs to be expanded to address these cohorts.
Special schools face huge challenges in reopening their school buildings in September. They will require additional personnel and PPE as well as very clear guidance and training on the intimate care challenges they will face day to day and funding to support the purchase of extra resources to limit the sharing of materials in or between classes.
School leaders will need support in implementing the safety aspects of reopening as well as in teaching and learning in a much altered environment. "Developing schools", newly amalgamated schools, schools with recently appointed principals and those setting up new special classes in September will all need additional support this year, given all the additional work all schools will have to undertake. Special consideration must also be given to schools undergoing significant repair due to the Western Building Systems issue, where expected completion dates cannot now be met due to the length of the recent lockdown, and school leaders and boards of management are faced with the extra difficult logistics issue of ensuring the safety of pupils and staff in greatly compromised situations. As school inspections have been paused until at least early 2021, the role of inspectors should be temporarily redirected to support schools to get back up and running and to restore normality. However, this must be a collaborative rather than an inspection-based approach.
No school should lose a staff member owing to Covid-19 - for example, a parental decision to keep a child at home or to defer the child's start in junior infants.
School transport will be a significant issue for many schools and particularly challenging for special schools. The HPSC-HSE guidance does not clarify whether distancing on school transport is to be at 1 m or 2 m. There is also the matter of specific guidance for drivers, escorts and pupils availing of school transport, buses as well as taxis. This needs to be urgently clarified.
Centralised communications should be provided to schools and parents to indicate clearly that schools have to balance the safety of the school community with a child's right to an education.
IPPN president, Damian White, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other relevant points further with the committee.