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26 Jan 2022

"We know for a fact that schools aren't safe at the minute"

Derry teachers left in dark as schools open and cases continue to rise

"We know for a fact that schools aren't safe at the minute"

Derry teachers have expressed their grave concerns over the safety of staff and pupils as they return to school during the Omicron spike

Derry teachers have expressed their grave concerns over the safety of staff and pupils as they return to school during the Omicron spike.

Stormont ministers have been informed that around 90 per cent of cases in Northern Ireland are the Omicron variant.

Covid cases across the country have continued to rise with 30,423 cases reported from December 31 to January 3.

Of this, over 3000 were in Derry as Derry remains the county with the highest Covid infection rate in Northern Ireland.

Schools across the city resumed face to face teaching in the classroom earlier this week after the Christmas break, with no change to Covid guidance.

Susan Parlour, President of National Education Union (NEU) NI, said: "The message seems to be, 'keep the schools open and hope for the best,' it's farcical.

"There is no PPE in schools and there are no risk assessments. I understand this takes time but it is essential in the current circumstances.

"Face coverings are required in schools which staff need to provide themselves or they need to accept the substandard masks offered which are really not fit for purpose. Also, many children do not wear their masks and this is rarely challenged.

"We receive daily figures on Covid cases in schools but with no track and trace in place and lateral flow testing, which has proved time and time again to not be the most reliable, the number of cases and close contacts will be higher than what is recorded.

"Chief Medical Officer, Dr McBride, stated that Covid was not spreading in schools and that outside socialising was the cause, we saw the rise in cases over Christmas and the schools were shut.

"Mark Browne, Permanent Secretary, sent a letter to principals on December 31 that stated that the departments advice on measures to reduce transmission has not changed.

"He stated that EA has provided CO2 monitors to schools along with detailed instructions on their use.

"This is not the case. CO2 monitors are not on the ground and there is little to no guidance on how to use them."

NEU NI released a statement providing guidance for CO2 monitors and their use stating that 'carbon dioxide monitors are not a solution to the problem of poor ventilation.'

The Department for Education in England (DfE) is rolling out a very limited number of CO2 units and most schools will not be able to benefit from this scheme. 

Susan continued: "Schools, students and principals feel let down and there are no mitigations in place to keep them safe.

"There seems to be a false perception that teachers want to teach from home, it is not the case.

"Teachers want to be in the classroom but they want it to be safe for both them and their students.

"There are no measures in place to keep the school community safe, no close contacts, no track and trace, no support and no meaningful guidance."

NEU NI are currently advising teachers and schools not to teach if over 25 per cent of their staff are absent. If this number of absent staff members is reached, the school should close.

The Education Minister stated that options are available such as consolidating classes or teachers teaching remotely as well as live teaching but Susan explained, 'this is even more work and pressure on teachers, in an already stressful teaching environment.'

At St Cecelia's College in Derry, 15% of the staff are currently off sick; six teachers and 10 classroom assistants. There are 16 pupils who are off sick in one class alone.

Tanya Wakeley, teacher and union rep at St Cecelia's College in Derry, said: "We are teaching in a Covid stew, it is a nightmare and it is not good enough. 

"Those are the numbers only two days into the school year and we haven't even reached the peak of this Omicron wave.

"The government has to do something and we need to speak up. We don't want to work from home, it's not an efficient way to teach and it's double the workload.

"We want to be in the classroom to teach our pupils, but we want to be doing it safely, where both staff and pupils feel safe.

"We know for a fact that schools aren't safe at the minute and we can see that after only two days back teaching.

"The students feel let down too, especially the senior years. They don't even know if they'll be sitting their exams in the summer. Nobody knows what is going on and there is no clear direction.

"I have students that have never sat an official exam and that will no doubt never get their work experience. We feel very in the dark with everything and we are not being told enough."

With teacher absences, many teachers are forced to form composite classes or teach larger numbers of pupils than they are used to or is usually advised.

Tanya continued: "A class can have anything between 25 to 30 pupils and what we have to do at the minute, because we don't have enough teachers in school, is put more than one class in the multi-purpose hall.

"The pupils are all socially distanced, but Covid is airborne, and there are no windows in that hall. 

"If we are in the classroom, the classrooms are freezing because we have to ventilate the rooms, it's the middle of January, with the cold air we are going to get sick either way, whether it's Covid or not.

"We are not provided with sufficient PPE, the masks are not fit for purpose and at this stage, it is a complete trust situation that pupils do not come in if they have tested positive or have Covid symptoms.

"The parents are worried as well and we don't even have the government's guidance to reassure them. We are being told one thing by the government and another thing by experts. You don't know what to believe and God knows what is coming next.

"This is not going away and it's definitely not going away in schools. It is going to get worse before it gets better and we need plans in place. 

"We are collateral damage and we have been forgotten about."

Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, has said her priority remains keeping schools open amid the surge of cases in Northern Ireland.

She said there have been no changes to the guidance issued to schools regarding Covid because health officials haven't changed their position.

Schools experiencing staffing shortages will have the option to move to remote learning and introduce partial timetables, she added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education (DE) said that “a range of mitigations” have been recommended to risk the transmission of Covid within schools across the North.

They said: “Throughout the pandemic the Department has worked closely with key stakeholders as well as the Department of Health and Public Health Agency as we manage our response and continue to do so.

“We continue to follow advice in relation to all public health issues including contact tracing however no changes have been recommended in respect of the approach to contact tracing or changes to the DE Covid guidance.

“Rates of Covid infection in the community in Northern Ireland are currently extremely high. Schools are part of our community so it is inevitable that there will be cases among staff and students in our schools.

“While we cannot eradicate Covid altogether, a range of mitigations are recommended to reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible in the school environment.

“These measures include regular LFD testing, good hand/respiratory hygiene, maximising ventilation, face coverings for post-primary pupils and staff and consistent groups wherever possible.

“All staff and those aged 12 and over have also had access to the vaccination programme. We have a shared objective to support our schools so they are able to provide for our children as we all know that the best place for our children and young people is in school.

“No one mitigation on its own will prevent the spread of the virus, but used together each mitigation provides works to reduce transmission.

“Our schools, like those across the rest of the UK and Ireland, are facing staffing shortages due to the pandemic. There is a limited supply of qualified teachers.

“We have made a formal call for retired teachers to provide support and we have also looked to provide more flexibility for schools in how they deploy substitute teachers. If further financial resources are needed by schools we will make bids to meet these costs.

“The EA secured more than 11,500 C02 monitors and approximately 95 per cent of schools in NI have now been provided with monitors, with a further 5000 monitors expected imminently. The additional monitors will be delivered to the remaining schools as a priority and also to those schools that have requested additional monitors.

“Good ventilation, along with other measures can help mitigate the risk of transmission. Natural ventilation, such as opening windows can be effective at reducing the risk from virus in the air.

“School leaders who are concerned about ventilation in a room should contact the EA maintenance helpline for advice and support on the best approach for their individual circumstances.

“In some cases where an area of poor ventilation has been identified, it may be appropriate to consider the use of an air cleaning unit as an additional mitigation whilst further remedial work is undertaken to improve ventilation.

“The pandemic requires a collective response to support the safe operation of our schools – staff, parents, and pupils all have a key role to play carrying out regular testing and making sure making sure that anyone with symptoms follows Covid-19 advice and information which is available at NIDirect.gov.uk.”

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