Last week, we published a story about mounting concerns amongst teachers that the Government’s public spin about the safety of schools is not matched by the realities on the ground. Teachers across the country told us, here at Gript, that they felt that there is a concerted effort by the authorities to artificially depress the number of cases of Covid-19 that can be directly linked to schools.

Then, six days ago, the Irish Sun revealed this corker of a story:

TEACHERS in schools with positive cases of Covid-19 have been urged by the HSE to turn off their contact tracing app while in work, the Irish Sun has learned.

Principals in affected schools were told that the app was not needed as “individualised risk assessment” would be carried out in the event of any confirmed cases of the virus popping up.

In a letter to principals in secondary schools where cases were detected, officials from the Infection Control team at the Department of public health advised them to ask staff to shut down the app while in school.

Naturally enough, teachers have been wondering why the Department would want them to turn off their contact tracing apps. What other reason could there be, they reasonably wonder, other than that the Department does not want too many contacts in schools traced?

And it’s not simply that concerns exist in relation to the detection and recording of Covid cases in schools. Many teachers who spoke to Gript last week also expressed the basic concern that the measures that are in place in schools to disrupt the spread of Covid simply are not working, and that schools are not capable of socially distanced work, or learning.

For example, one teacher told this website that while mask wearing was compulsory during class, “masks are all but invisible in breaktimes, and social distancing goes out the window”. Another spoke about the basic problem that large schools simply have too few bathrooms, leading to constant queues for staff toilets during breaktimes, often on crowded corridors, with one person following another into a very small cubicle.

Others spoke of the fact that social distancing, while nice in practice, simply isn’t possible for teachers who teach practical subjects – an Irish or Maths teacher can stand at the top of the classroom and teach their class from a distance. But an Art teacher, or a woodwork teacher, has to walk through the classroom and get close to students for their work to be even remotely effective.

All of these concerns, as reported by Gript last week, have been perculating for some weeks. Which should make yesterday’s vote by the ASTI less of a surprise than it was:

Secondary school teachers who are members of the ASTI trade union have voted in favour of industrial action, up to and including strike action, unless the Government immediately addresses a number of key Covid related issues in schools.

In a ballot that posed a number of questions, ASTI teachers voted in favour of action on a number of issues.

They included seeking a redefinition of what constitutes a close contact in the classroom; Covid test turnaround times of 24 hours; serial testing for schools; the provision of free laptops for students and teachers; provision to allow teachers in the high-risk health category to teach from home or have accommodations made in school; and equal pay for teachers employed after 2010.

Many of those concerns are reasonable. Some, though, like the equal pay one, are a mistake. Teachers get a broadly unfair rap from the public as it is. While equal pay for more recently hired teachers is an absolutely legitimate issue, why on earth is the ASTI bringing it into this dispute? They may as well invite the public to dismiss their concerns about Covid altogether and say that this proposed strike is actually just about teachers wanting more money. It’s a remarkable tactical mistake by the Union.

The provision of laptops for students is another one that, while fair on its face, is probably beyond the ability of Government to resolve. Who qualifies for a laptop? Who doesn’t? How many laptops per family? All of those questions would take time to resolve, which means its probably a pointless demand.

The other issues raised by the ASTI, though, are perfectly fair. Teachers suspect that the Department is trying to downplay the number of cases in schools. If that’s not true, then fast test turnarounds and serial testing in schools should not be a problem. Special protections for high-risk staff is hardly an unreasonable request, either.

It will be interesting to see how the department responds.