Covid-19 and education: Working & studying in safe environment is a right

By Kate Relihan 

“Our schools are overcrowded, underfunded and dealing with a global pandemic on a wing and a prayer” — principal Tiernan Ó’Neill of Corpus Christi DEIS primary school in Moyross, Limerick, synopsised brilliantly the reality for school staff on Newstalk on Tuesday, 21 October. 

He rightfully pointed out that schools have never closed since the first lockdown in March from the roll out of on-line learning, school meals and lunches, to delivery of work packs and/or digital devices to ‘try’ to bridge the massive on-line learning gap, to spending the summer months running summer programmes for parents, recruiting staff and preparing schools for the onerous task of a safe reopening. 

He also pointed to the fact that disadvantaged schools and indeed an ever increasing number of non DEIS schools nationwide, were dealing with homelessness, unemployment, addiction and mental health and well before this pandemic struck, but the virus has now exacerbated the cracks to enormous proportions. 

Democratic control to defend our safety 

For the wellbeing of all students and parents, especially those disadvantaged, it is important for teachers, school staff and society that schools are open, but we need much more comprehensive and thorough measures given the current dangerous spike in positive cases. School staff and students should not be used as guinea pigs and a cover to mask gross ineptitude by this Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party government. 

They have a right to work and study in a safe environment, and from this, a right to have democratic control and oversight over all aspects of health and safety to ensure this happens. If the government can’t guarantee this right then schools must be closed down by the actions of workers and pupils themselves. 

Before the onset of this second wave the guidance meted out to school staff by the Department of Education fell well short. A fifty page document for the safe reopening of schools, a few health and safety videos and a ‘mask up, sanitise & away you go’ proposal. This was combined with an deafening silence from government and Minister of Education, Norma Foley — an insulting and woefully negligent response to a towering challenge.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the government turned a complete blind eye to the teachers treated as second class on a two-tier pay scale who are seeing society through this pandemic, the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the EU and decades of chronic underfunding and under-resourcing that leaves society with hundreds if not thousands of not fit-for-purpose school buildings. How can we realise genuine safety at schools without reducing class size or providing extra buildings to ensure adequate social distancing and/or ventilation? How can we have smaller classes without hiring more teachers and SNAs? 

The Covid cracks

Without a shadow of a doubt, given the recent surge in positive cases, the Department of Education & Skills, HSE and NPHET are now playing Russian Roulette with the health and even lives of school staff and students. The last two weeks has seen a huge surge in the number of positive cases and outbreaks within schools. Spiralling figures in the North has resulted in the adoption of a circuit breaker approach and the closure of all schools for four weeks. 

Here in the South entire school communities have been thrown under a bus with a massive cover up of figures by government, media & HSE alike as community transmission is fast becoming school transmission as the virus spreads asymptomatically within schools. 

Teachers head into mid-term break and a six week level 5 lockdown with an average of 7 positive cases for schools of 500 students a week ago, now that is double, at 14 cases per school. 281 secondary schools and over 320 primary schools are now grappling with positive cases that we know of, this includes 118 outbreaks. Up to the day before schools reopened on 24 August  there were 27,969 cases and 770 cases in the 0 -14 age category, 2.75% of total cases. And by the 9 October there were 40,086 total cases, 2,054 cases in the 0 – 14 age category; 5.13% of total cases (hpsc.ie/a-z/respirator). 

This is most worrying when you consider that children are most likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. A study in India based on a giant contact tracing effort involving more than three million people contradicts the belief that children are unlikely to catch the coronavirus. The study identified a ‘high level of prevalence of infection among children who were contacts of cases around their own age,’ wrote study leader at Princeton, Ramanan Laxminarayang.

HSE/Government Cover Up:

The massive underfunding of education corresponds to an equally under resourced testing and tracing facility and this is why the HSE and government have avoided publishing the names of schools with positive cases — to avoid media headlines and take the limelight off a crippled system. But this has now backfired to no end as we saw with the collapse of contact tracing due to completely overwhelmed and under-resourced facilities, leaving school phone lines hopping.

Why aren’t teachers considered close contacts when they spend hours with their students? Why isn’t the entire class and teacher/SNA isolating as opposed to a pod/group of students if a positive case? Why do teachers have to argue and defend their stance for their safety and that of their pupils with HSE/Government in the event of a positive case? Why is there no set protocol for siblings? Why are substitute teachers not informed if they are covering for a class with a previous positive case? Why were no proper risk assessments carried out, especially in classrooms with little to no ventilation?

It is for this reason that the three teacher unions, INTO, TUI, ASTI along with Fórsa trade union are demanding a mass and rapid robust test and trace system for schools following mid-term break. 

Immunocompromised Teachers:

Another distressing debacle are the many immunocompromised teachers forced to work in overcrowded classrooms as they are deemed not high risk enough to warrant cover by Medmark, a private occupational health service dedicated to schools. Teachers with heart/respiratory conditions, those pregnant or compromised with underlying health conditions;, Medmark and the Department of Education and Skills scandalously deems these teachers not high risk! 

Many teachers are afraid to raise these issues with management as selflessly they do not want to be seen as complaining. No compromised teacher should be thrown to the wolves in such a callous manner and have their health jeopardised and their rights circumvented.

A Broken System:

Austerity and neoliberalism over decades have drastically undermined our education services not only leaving us with the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the EU, but criminal neglect and underfunding of special educational needs that sees many regions across the country with alarmingly long waiting lists for even a basic assessment of need — up to two years in the Dublin 15 area alone! Massive under resourcing of school psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and school counsellors as reported by the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon in the Irish Times on the 15 October. 

His highly critical report slated the waiting lists of several years for children with suspected disabilities. A total of 5,533 students are currently overdue an assessment with delays that “are robbing children of their potential and may affect them for the rest of their lives.” (Irish Times 15 Oct 2020) The virus has also worsened the already non-existent teaching, social and circulating space for special needs students with school libraries, assembly halls, corridors and social spaces being converted into classrooms to ‘try’ to wing tuition for these vulnerable students.

Industrial Action:

The decision of the ASTI to ballot their members for industrial action is most welcome. There is a definite hunger at grassroot level for the INTO and TUI leaderships to join forces with ASTI in balloting their members also to drive home to the Government and the HSE that all teachers demand a safe working environment for all school staff and students at the very least. 

The bottom line is that teachers, like all other workers, have a right to safety and work- and it should be teachers, other workers in schools,students and parents who should democratically decide what is safe, not the government or Department of Education.  The coming mid term break must be used to ensure that schools are safe and if it isn’t, schools shouldn’t reopen. This demand must be backed up by a united campaign of strike action by teachers from all unions and by students. 

We Call for: 

Reinstate the one tier payscale. Extra supervision duties should be remunerated.

Reduce the pupil teacher ratio to 15:1 ensure every student reaches their full potential in a safe environment.

Adequate PPE/scrubs/masks/sanitising equipment readily available and provided for by DES

An immediate directive to be issued by the three teacher unions to put pressure on the Government to alter the current HSE policy of not informing school staff or parents in the event of a positive case in schools. 

Rapid mass testing to swiftly and accurately pinpoint a positive case/cluster and a public health nurse attached to an area or group of schools to assist in the operation.

Reverse the 15% cut to resource/learning support teaching and a 50% increase all specialist services to diagnose and treat students with disabilities. Double the current number of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs)

A genuine grassroots and cross union campaign up to and including industrial action for safety and investment in education. INTO & TUI should join the ranks of the ASTI union in a united campaign of teachers with the backing of parents, students and the wider community in a plan of industrial action to demand safety in schools.

We have a right to work in a safe environment and the right to assert this right. For democratic control of health and safety in the schools by teachers, parents and students.