At approximately this time yesterday morning, the question of “what to do about the schools” was remarkably uncontroversial, as these things go. In the face of an explosion in the number of cases, hospital admissions, and ICU admissions on foot of covid, the country had basically made peace with the fact that schools would not open for the remainder of January. Students and teachers would go back to online learning, for the month, and we would all live with the imperfections and difficulties that situation brings. Some people, of course, didn’t like it. But an overwhelming majority recognised that it was inevitable, and understandable.
Then, for reasons that are unclear, Fianna Fáil unilaterally decided to change the plan. Unilaterally, because, as we now know, they did not seek feedback from teachers unions, schools, students, or any other stakeholder.
Now, we are told, the Government wants leaving cert students to attend school three days a week, while other classes will work from home.
It’s the classic political idea which sounds smart for about three minutes, before you think through its consequences. The Teachers Union of Ireland took those three minutes, considered the consequences, and then let the Government have both barrels:
The proposed opening of schools for Leaving Certificate students will inevitably see large numbers of people – teachers, other staff and students – mixing in confined spaces at a time when the unambiguous public health advice to the population is to do the exact opposite. At a time of significant rise in positive COVID-19 cases and large numbers in isolation due to contact tracing plus the serious concerns about the new variant of the disease, this appears to be an extremely dangerous risk to take.
Moreover, if COVID-19 gains a foothold in schools, the inevitable result will be an increase in infection rates and resultant teacher absence, putting at severe risk the service to all students.
Aside from the very real health and safety concerns for students, staff and the wider community, implementing the proposed return for Leaving Certificate students will be a logistical nightmare, not least in terms of timetabling. Students in other years still have to be catered for, along with those Leaving Certificate students who, for a variety of reasons, will not be in a position to attend.
The health point is relatively obvious, so there’s no need to dwell on it. The real difficulty here is the logistical challenges the Government has landed on schools, students, and teachers, without any consultation.
Teachers, for example, will have to be in school for a minimum of three days (possibly five, though that is unconfirmed) to teach leaving cert students. They will then have to prepare online classes for five other year groups, presumably to be delivered in the two days when the sixth years are at home.
School timetables, which take weeks to develop, in the summer, will have to be re-developed and planned in two or three days.
School busses, which in most towns serve two or three schools simultaneously, have no idea at the time of writing which days they will be required to run on.
Teachers, many of them who have school age children of their own, now face a situation where they are not key workers, and therefore not entitled to childcare, but have children who cannot be cared for in schools, while they themselves are required to attend.
Some sixth-year students simply will not attend, out of fears held either by themselves, or their parents. How are they to be accommodated? By remote learning? At what time?
From a purely political view, this is yet another unforced error by Fianna Fáil. Where there was no substantive opposition, this time yesterday, they have manufactured outrage from the Unions, Parents, Students, and most people with common sense. They have gained nothing.
It is very likely, if not certain, that this opposition will force an embarrassing u-turn. Already, some principals are telling the Irish Times they simply will not comply:
“Has health and safety been abandoned?” asked Michael Cregan, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. “There are lots of logistical problems. What provision is there for childcare for teachers?”
A number of school principals – who declined to be named – said they were considering closing and teaching Leaving Cert pupils remotely despite the Government decision.
This is an entirely needless, unforced error. Already, and for some months, there has been a feeling in education circles that the Government was using their sector, without much regard for the health of those in the sector, as a political football.
Yesterday’s move will have confirmed that. And it creates yet another group that will be quite eager to give FF a black eye, if they have the opportunity.
A dunce move. And not for the first time, under Mr. Martin’s leadership.