There remains widespread concern this morning among staff, parents, and management as primary school students return to classrooms across the county following the Christmas break, according to the Irish National Teachers Organisation representative for Roscommon-Galway.
Ballygar native, Tommy Greally, who is a member of the organisation’s Central Executive Committee, says concerns remain around such issues as the procurement of medical grade masks, HEPA filters, and the removal of contact tracing from primary schools.
Mr. Greally, a teacher at Lavally National School near Tuam, believes more funding is required from central Government to ensure the necessary measures are taken in the classroom.
“At this moment, the Board of Management in schools can use capitation funding to purchase medical grade masks for teachers. This funding is meant to be used for lighting, heating and other running costs. The hope has to be that the Government will provide extra funding in the very near future,” he said.
“With regards HEPA filters, there was a 30 per cent increase of the Minor Works Grant to enable schools to purchase filters, but that is nowhere near enough. Filters can cost up to €1,800 plus VAT.
“Also, schools don’t have the expertise when it comes to purchasing this equipment. They would be going in blind”.
Mr. Greally added that without HEPA filters, classroom windows would have to remain open throughout the coldest months of the year.
“Another issue of concern is that contact tracing still hasn’t been restored at primary school level,” he added.
“The HSE stands by its opinion that schools are safe and controlled environments, but we are not in agreement with that as things stand. We are not medical experts but it would certainly provide reassurance to staff, parents and students if contact tracing was reintroduced”.
INTO has also raised concerns regarding staffing shortages as teachers and staff members return to work.
“The HSE has assured us that there will be a helpline should there be a high number of cases in a school. The HSE will make any final decision or whether or not to close schools and but we certainly hope that we receive more support and the HSE helpline works far more effectively this time around,” Mr. Greally added.
The bottom line from the INTO is that staff members remain extremely concerned as the current wave of Covid-19 cases have yet to peak.
“There is a lot of worry and it is felt that the Government has dragged its feet on measures,” Mr. Greally said.
“This could and should have been done a lot earlier. The (Education) Minister and Government are determined to keep schools open and schools are taking every measure to ensure classrooms are as safe as possible.
“Teachers are glad to be going back to school too because online learning isn’t as effective, but they also know they are going into the largest classrooms in Europe with unvaccinated children”.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD Claire Kerrane has said the Government must act now to ensure schools can remain open.
“It is deeply disappointing that the Government has thus far failed to prioritise making schools as safe as possible so that they can remain open,” she said.
“Teachers and principals have sought very basic mitigation measures which have not been delivered. At every step, the Government have been slow to act and even now after worrying increases in Covid following the emergence of Omicron in early November, they still have not put these measures in place”.
Deputy Kerrane called for an introduction of a number of immediate measures this week.
“That means HEPA air filtration systems in all classrooms, with adequate guidance for principals. That means the HSE being responsible for contact tracing, not principals. That means adequate investment in schools to ensure they have enough budget for heating and other vital resources,” she said.
“The Government’s dithering and lax attitude only fails to protect children’s education and teachers. It’s time to make education the priority it deserves to be so schools can remain open”.