There are concerns amongst teachers and parents that schools are not a safe environment for students or staff.

‘Our children are being used as guinea pigs’

The head of an East Cork family and parents group has said schools are currently not safe environments for children.

Eileen Kelly-McCarthy told the Cork Independent she believes a staggered opening of schools should have been implemented by the Government rather than the decision to reopen them fully today.

She said: “Schools this time last year didn't open and I feel that was the right thing to do. The staggered opening is the right thing to do.”

Ms Kelly-McCarthy said the wording has now changed in the way the Government describes schools in relation to Covid-19.

“Previously, the word being used was that schools are 'safe'. That's no longer the word being used. The word's they're using now are that schools are 'controlled environments'.

“You use that terminology when you're carrying out studies. At the end of the day, our children are being used as guinea pigs.”

Ms Kelly-McCarthy said children are being put into environments that aren't necessarily safe so that the economy can continue to run.

She also pointed out the irony that the meeting held between the Minister for Education Norma Foley and representatives from public health, the HSE and education stakeholders on Tuesday, took place over Zoom due to Covid-19 concerns.

During this meeting it was decided that schools would open today despite a country-wide wave of Covid-19 infection.

Ms Kelly-McCarthy went on to say that a false narrative has been created around teachers who are being painted as the villains.

“I don't know of any teacher that does not want to return to work. Teachers want to teach but I don't think it's irrational of them to want safe environments,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has expressed dismay at the lack of progress on school safety in the context of rising cases of the Omicron variant.

A statement from the group read: “While the Government has acknowledged the staffing crisis facing schools as they re-open this week, there is little by way of additional support for safety and to assist schools in remaining open.”

The ASTI said that it expects intense disruption for schools and immense pressure on school staff and school principals in particular in the coming months.

“Despite repeated calls from the ASTI, many Irish classrooms are still in dire need of HEPA filtration units in order to assist with ventilation,” the statement read.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) also expressed severe concern over a number of safety short fallings in schools.

The INTO said it fundamentally rejects the findings of Tuesday public health review that contact tracing should not be reinstated in primary educational settings at this time and said it will continue to demand that this essential support be reinstated.

The INTO also called for a public awareness campaign to give parents clear and simple messages ahead of each new term in school. A multi-lingual campaign has since been agreed to by the Government.

Leaving Cert

It will be a difficult term for Leaving Cert students according to Cork North Central Solidarity TD Mick Barry who said many students will be unable to attend school as they have Covid, while many others will be unable to attend as they are close contacts.

“Some others will simply not attend because they and their families do not consider school to be a safe environment in the middle of an Omicron wave,” said the deputy.

Deputy Barry said he is being contacted by large numbers of Leaving Cert students who do not believe that Minister Foley’s plan for a traditional Leaving Cert with minor amendments is either fair or reasonable at this point.

Deputy Barry went on to say that he favours the scrapping of Leaving Cert exams and the introduction of a policy of open access, increasing investment in third level to the point where there would be a place for every CAO applicant who wants one.

Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD said: “I cannot understand the lack of urgency from the Government. Yet again Government has left it until the 11th hour. This is putting immense pressure on countless schools, and causing huge stress for parents, school staff, and children.”