The ASTI recently announced an intention to ballot members for industrial action in relation to certain issues relating to school re-opening.
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.
I would like to acknowledge the enormous hard work that has been undertaken by teachers and staff at a local school level, and stakeholders including management bodies and unions to ensure that we could reopen our schools safely.
My Department has engaged extensively with stakeholders including ASTI in developing the plans for reopening, including regular formal meetings as well as informal contacts. This consultation is continuing following the re-opening.
A Public Health Specialist from the HSE attended stakeholder meetings at the beginning of the year to describe the public health approach for stakeholders and to answer questions and address any concerns raised. Webinars have been developed by the HSE specifically to address issues raised by schools around the approach taken when cases are confirmed in the school community and will be circulated as widely as possible.
The views of stakeholders including ASTI have been taken into consideration at every stage of the process, including their emphasis on a Public Health led approach to planning for school reopening.
Very significant funding of over €375 million has been allocated to schools to facilitate re-opening. This enables 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 also has continuing engagement with the Public Health Authorities on a weekly basis so that schools can remain open safely and is working with stakeholders including ASTI in this respect also.
Appropriate information and guidance for school leaders has been provided by both Public Health in the HSE and my Department. Detailed information on the public health approach when there has been confirmed cases or a potential outbreak in the school has been published and issued to all schools. To date, where confirmed cases have arisen, schools have co-operated with Public Health to minimise any further risk to the school community.
In terms of testing, a priority pathway for testing of close contacts from a school setting has been implemented by the HSE, in consultation with my Department. The Public Health Risk Assessment includes identifying any close contacts of the positive case. Immediately following the Public Health Risk Assessment, the Principal is advised of any actions, including requesting parents to collect children (or advising staff to go home), restrict their movements and await a test appointment. Covid 19 test appointments are issued as a priority for school based close contacts through a specific schools referral process within the HSE. At the point of testing, swabs for the school group are processed as a priority.
My Department will continue to engage with all education partners, including ASTI, in the coming months so that we can address any remaining concerns and ensure that schools stay open.