IPPN Statement - 7th January 2021 - The reopening of special schools and classes, and the resumption of remote learning

IPPN fully appreciates the rationale for reopening special schools and special classes as soon as possible. The prioritisation of pupils with additional needs has widespread support among all members of the education sector. However, we have significant concerns about the safety of our members and their staff, given the spike in the numbers of positive Covid-19 cases around the country and the challenges this is posing to the health service at the present time. 

Since the Department’s announcement on Wednesday evening 6th January, hundreds of worried principals have contacted IPPN expressing their considerable alarm and dismay. Their key concern is the health and safety of staff and pupils, especially given the additional risks posed in special education settings.

Among the other issues raised by special schools and schools with special classes are:

  • Concerns about staff levels. Many staff have notified their school that they cannot come to school next week, due to health and safety concerns, or childcare issues
  • The safety of school transport
  • Supporting pupils who are very high risk and need to stay home
  • Finding staff to cover for absences
  • Access to additional funding when emergency funding for PPE/cleaning requisites has run out
  • The calls by Fórsa for boards of management to carry out risk assessments to assure staff of their safety while working on school premises.

All of this will pose enormous challenges for those schools, and they will need guidance and direction where there are insufficient staffing levels to keep schools open, as well as additional funding and support to safeguard everyone in the school community, where required.

In light of all of this, we would echo the sentiments expressed by CPSMA, INTO and management bodies today, regarding the need to provide additional time to schools before commencing on-site provision. This would help to reduce infection rates in the community, enable management bodies to put in place capacity and expertise to support boards of management with challenging health and safety, legal and HR issues, and give schools time to deal with the complex planning and staff management required to reopen schools in such difficult circumstances.

School leaders do not wish schools to remain closed, rather we are actively working to ensure that they can reopen when it’s safe to do so. At a time when community transmission levels are so high, the confidence levels amongst children, parents and school staff that schools are safe have been eroded, despite the assurances from the Department and NPHET.

A major concern at this time is the emotional wellbeing of those leading schools over the past year. Many are reporting serious emotional strain from the burden of constant fear of an outbreak in their school. Many are managing staff members crippled with anxiety over Covid-19 and the possibility of carrying it home to elderly or vulnerable people in their homes.  The circumstances in which school staff members are now working is unlike anything they have experienced before and needs to be properly acknowledged, and the practical supports, guidance and funding needs to be put in place as a matter of urgency, as well as moral support.

Over 2,300 school leaders responded to an IPPN survey on 5th January. A significant percentage of schools reported that they had cases of COVID-19 and that this had a moderate or very significant impact on the operation of the school. Confidence levels about opening in the near future are very low, given the level of community transmission of the virus. When asked what would help to give them confidence about the safety of reopening schools, vaccinations for staff, contact tracing and a redefinition of what constitutes a close contact were the top three things that would increase confidence. Others were the wearing of face coverings by senior primary pupils and enhanced grants for PPE and cleaning.

IPPN has called for a number of specific supports to be put in place:

  1. School leaders in special education settings – all school leaders leading and managing schools that are reopening in January need to have administrative status. It is not feasible or reasonable to expect any school leader to teach in addition to all of the responsibilities they are expected to manage in the coming days and weeks.
  1. Vaccinations for staff – As education has been prioritised, school staff need to be prioritised as frontline workers for the vaccination roll-out. In special education settings, this would need to include SNAs, bus escorts and any other staff working in close proximity to pupils, none of whom wear masks.
  1. Contact tracing – clarification and confirmation that full contact tracing, as well as testing, is continuing for the school sector is essential. To increase confidence, increased capacity to deal with the surge in infection rates and the consequent increase in the number of tests is required, as well as communication around this.
  1. Close contacts – a key concern was a perception that the definition of close contacts was too narrow and people who should have been isolating at home were not asked to do so. A redefinition of close contacts in the school environment to a stricter interpretation would alleviate some of these concerns
  1. The wearing of masks has worked in reducing transmission in the community. IPPN believes that strong consideration should be given by NPHET and the Department to the compulsory wearing of masks for pupils from 3rd to 6th class.

Resumption of Remote Learning – Supports Needed

The return to remote learning by all other schools and teachers also raises a considerable number of questions and challenges, as noted by school leaders in the survey responses. The following are the main priorities raised by principals and deputy principals that need to be addressed.

  1. By far the biggest concern raised by members in relation to a return to remote learning is equity of access to education by disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils, thus funding for devices and broadband for those who need it is essential. The level of engagement with learning by our most vulnerable children and their parents was a key concern during the first mandated closure in March-June. IPPN has offered to support the Department in examining how best to support vulnerable children when the transmission rate is dangerously high.
  1. Teaching principals are of particular concern to IPPN. The only fair and equitable approach to enable these school leaders to manage effectively during periods of remote learning is to provide additional leadership and management time until all schools reopen. IPPN has significant concerns about the number of substitute teachers available to support teaching principals and also to support schools whose staff cannot work. We are looking at ways to increase the availability of substitute teachers.
  1. Funding for IT software and hardware for teaching and learning
  1. Further training in online platforms
  1. Access to expert IT support.

This has been a time of incredible pressure and stress on everyone in education. We acknowledge and appreciate the deep commitment all school leaders have shown in working towards a safe resumption of learning for all pupils, and the collaborative efforts of the education stakeholders.

Damian White                   Páiric Clerkin

IPPN President                  CEO

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