The gift of an early Christmas is quietly dropped from Santa’s list

The idea of schools closing early for Christmas was quietly knocked off Santa’s list at the Oireachtas Education Committee yesterday, one of series of hearings about how the education system is getting through Covid.

It was the turn of the three teacher unions, the INTO, ASTI and TUI, along with Fórsa, which represents other school staff, to highlight issues of concern.

When committee chair Paul Kehoe expressed surprise at the notion of an early festive break, Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the TUI, whose statement this week triggered a day-long national debate on the issue, said they were merely responding to queries about a proposal from a political party. He said the TUI never demanded it – “all the TUI said was that it was worth considering”.

Priority for teachers on a Covid vaccination programme was high on the list for INTO general secretary John Boyle.

He also advised that no family who travelled abroad over Christmas “should be under the impression that they could send their child back to school on day one after Christmas”.

Keeping his special needs assistants (SNA) members safe now was the main concern expressed by Fórsa’s Andy Pike, who said the union had bought face masks for SNAs who could not access this equipment within their school.

He said health advice stated that face masks should be provided to SNAs where they could not maintain social distancing ‘and where they were required to carry out intimate care for students. But that led to a “ridiculous situation whereby an SNA works side by side with a student for over six hours but may only receive the protection of a basic grade mask when taking the student to the toilet”.

The committee also heard that contact tracing and testing system in schools is a lot better than it was, but it’s still not perfect.

Mr Boyle advised that issues are being dealt with more efficiently and effectively, but problems persist at weekends, while principals along the Border face considerable challenges because of a “lack of joined-up thinking” between the HSE its Northern Ireland counterpart, the HSC.

And confusion in schools about who is a “close contact” of a confirmed case, a talking point in the first half of the term, is still a source of concern. The ASTI’s Kieran Christie said there was some “mystification” about it, although it was dissipating. He acknowledged that the “quality of information” had improved, but there was “still an enormous communications piece to be done”.

Unions also warned that in the event of a big winter freeze, schools will have to close because of the reliance of many on keeping windows open to introduce clean air – a key weapon in the fight against Covid. Michael Gillespie called on the Department of Education to take the advice of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre to install air-quality meters in every classroom “to ensure that student and teachers are not forced to teach and learn in freezing cold classrooms”.

Asked about lessons from Covid for future, Kieran Christie said the value of sanitisation in schools might be one of them. Mr Pike said there was no doubt that retaining sanitisation measures would help with infection control.

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