The reopening of schools has been a very important milestone for Irish children and society. The safety and wellbeing of staff, students and the whole school community has been of paramount importance in the Government’s planning for school reopening. Planning for school reopening was undertaken in close consultation and discussion with key education partners. Since schools reopened, that intensive stakeholder engagement has continued on a weekly basis with senior officials in my Department and representatives of trade unions and management bodies. The views of stakeholders, including the ASTI, have been taken into consideration at every stage of the process, including the emphasis on a Public Health led approach.
My Department has been working closely with the Department of Health and the HSE to achieve our shared objective to keep schools and staff and students safe. In order to maintain confidence amongst teachers and other staff, children and their parents, public health doctors have committed to a weekly engagement with key trade union representatives and management body representatives. This weekly engagement is being facilitated by my Department and this forum will allow all parties to exchange information, to progress appropriate developments as necessary and to enhance the effectiveness of public health interaction with schools during the pandemic. I can also confirm that the public health response to schools has been further enhanced by the HSE through the increased resourcing of the existing dedicated School Teams in each HSE area to assist schools/settings where a positive case of COVID-19 is identified. These teams are being led by public health professionals augmented by staff from the Department of Education who will be reassigned to the HSE.
To support the provision of a safe environment in schools, my Department secured very significant funding of over €375 million. This has enabled schools to put in place enhanced cleaning and hygiene arrangements, modify buildings and rooms to facilitate physical distancing, hire extra and replacement teachers and purchase PPE through a procurement framework. My Department continues to work with schools in this respect. The funding has been put in place to support schools in implementing their COVID-19 response plans, which have been informed by public health expert advice from the HPSC. In instances where a school class or year group has to isolate for 14 days due to Covid-19, my Department is working with stakeholders to ensure that continuity of teaching and learning takes place. This includes advising schools to provide access to school owned devices for students or teachers where this is a barrier. ICT funding of €50m was provided to schools earlier this year and schools were advised to use this funding to purchase additional devices if required.
In relation to high risk staff, an enhanced occupational healthcare service has been put in place. Very High Risk staff are permitted to work from home and other staff in the normal and higher risk categories can return to the workplace provided appropriate risk mitigation are in place and implemented according to their School COVID-19 Response plan. This is in line with the approach being adopted in other areas of the public sector including the health sector. A review process has been put in place where concerns remain.
In terms of the ASTI directives to members during the current COVID-19 emergency situation, employees may be asked and may go beyond normal working arrangements to facilitate the continuation of delivery of educational services. In relation to terms of employment measures implemented on a temporary basis during this emergency period. My Department has confirmed to the unions that such measures will not be implemented on a permanent basis without the normal discussion process taking place through the usual industrial relations mechanisms. It is accepted that such temporary measures are being operated by staff on a without prejudice basis and will not be used in any way by my Department as a precedent in any subsequent industrial relations discussions.
My Department will continue to engage with all education partners, including ASTI, in the coming months.