I thank the committee for the invitation.
Planning for the return to school was a fraught and complex process and there is a lot of trepidation and worry amongst ASTI members. Phenomenal work to prepare was undertaken by school management teams, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and ancillary staff across the country. Over those weeks, the ASTI commissioned research and some of the sample findings included 84% of principals reporting that their schools did not have a dedicated ventilation system and 25% of principals stating their schools did not have warm water in the school toilet facilities. A previous RED C survey commissioned by the ASTI found that 49% of teachers believed they work in schools with overcrowding in classrooms and 60% considered that there was inadequate storage available for staff and students. Indeed, Ireland ranks last of 35 OECD countries for investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.
This lack of investment must be addressed if schools are to continue to operate safely in the context of Covid-19. The ASTI is demanding that the Department of Education and Skills commission new school buildings and, in the meantime, order prefabs in recognition that the Government's approach of living alongside the virus into the future is going to require major investment in school infrastructure. Concerns also emerged about the feasibility of social distancing for students throughout school buildings, with 70% of principals surveyed rating the feasibility of social distancing in school corridors and other communal areas as weak.
We demand that an urgent review be undertaken of the physical distancing requirements for schools, given the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advice that only six people should congregate in any indoor setting and the lack of clarity in the guidance that underpins the operation of schools. We wrote to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and to the Minister for Health seeking a meeting with the HPSC, but our request has been declined thus far.
We have a question about the possibility of putting fast-track testing in place for schools in order to get results back in 24 hours, similar to those in the healthcare system, or within 48 hours at most. Why has this not been recommended and put in place? Why was there no recommendation to put Perspex, for instance, in front of teachers’ desks in classrooms, as I notice is in front of the Acting Chairman here today?
Why is there no temperature testing, at least for adults, when they arrive in school each day? Why was no guidance given on the numbers that could congregate for assemblies and staff meetings in schools?
We also seek clarity on the safety issues involved for students and teachers in the high-risk category. The ASTI has members whose illnesses include chronic kidney disease, cancer and serious heart disease. Anxiety levels among this group are very high. It is unconscionable that teachers who suffer the likes of these illnesses are being required to return to classrooms teaching sizeable groups. The ASTI demands alternative arrangements, such as working from home, for teachers who are in the high-risk category.
Additional concerns that we would like to discuss with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, have emerged further to the publication last week of the document, Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health approach. Provisions that are of concern include that where a case has been confirmed, it will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts; there is no blanket policy on testing entire year groups and classes in place; schools are not to inform parents or staff if a pupil or staff member goes home with symptoms; if someone goes home with symptoms, other staff and students do not need to be removed from the class, including siblings or other household members; and contact tracing will be done on a case-by-case basis. Experts have argued that if a single child is infected, the entire pod has to go home and isolate for two weeks and get tested. It is regrettable that those who are effectively making the decisions on these matters are refusing to meet representatives of those directly affected by them.
In addition, the Department of Education and Skills appears to be doing very little planning for the possibility that there might be individual schools or groups of schools closing down for a period. We all want the sustained reopening of schools and hope that this will not happen. However, this virus has shown itself to be persistent and it would be foolhardy to discount the possibility of closures.
Since the closure of schools in March 2020, the ASTI has repeatedly stated that remote learning is no replacement for face-to-face interaction between students and their teachers. That is a given. We have deep concerns about the lack of access to IT resources and broadband in many households. Teachers have spoken of finding three and four siblings working from one device. We have demanded that the Department of Education and Skills bulk purchase laptops for students and teachers so that every student has access to reliable IT equipment in the event of future closures.
On another matter, while the appointment of additional second level teachers is to be welcomed, the measure is inadequate in terms of achieving manageable class sizes and cover for Covid-19 sick leave during the pandemic. This is a major concern.
Investment in education must be seriously increased. We need support for teacher and student health and well-being, particularly the provision of alternative arrangements for the most medically vulnerable in our school communities. Guidance and advice to the system related to physical distancing need to be reviewed and updated. Staffing levels need to be adequately maintained and there must be proper contingency arrangements put in place to prepare for all eventualities.
My colleague from the TUI mentioned the situation regarding equal pay for equal work. It is unfortunate that the pandemic has not put an end to those kinds of practices in schools. We also call for an end to them. I will have additional points to make later. I thank the committee.