Warning that schools with big classes are at higher risk
Schools in Laois and Offaly with big class sizes of 30 or more pupils are at a higher risk of shutting during the Covid-19 pandemic if a teacher or pupil catches the virus, according to Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley.
The issue is one of a number of pitfalls he highlighted that are facing schools and parents during the pandemic. Cover for parental pay, Covid-19 testing, special needs and school transport were flagged by the TD. Schools with big class sizes topped the list of issues.
"Figures showing that there are 1,300 classes across the country with 30 or more children underline the challenges faced by schools to remain open during the pandemic. Schools in Laois/Offaly have 52 classes of 30 or more.
“Schools are open, and that is of course to be welcomed. But we cannot be complacent. We need to now ensure that the school doors can remain open, which will be as great a challenge as getting them open in the first place.
"The reopening of schools was made all the more difficult because we have an underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded education system.
“There are countless classes that are far too big, in buildings too small, and not fit for purpose. There are over 1300 schools across the country with classes of 30 or more children - that is one in five children in a class over 30.
"Laois has 27 classes of 30 or more and the figure for Offaly is 25. Sinn Féin wants to abolish all classes of over 30 children and work towards attaining an EU average of 20 children per class.
“We want an immediate audit of school buildings to be undertaken, which identifies those schools that are struggling most to comply with social distancing and that require additional space," he said.
He said Sinn Féin would set aside €300m to create additional space for schools that need it the most.
The TD also said parents need practical reassurance that they will not lose pay.
“Keeping the virus out of schools, and keeping schools open, also means supporting parents to do the right thing and keep symptomatic children at home.
"An assurance is needed that parents who must stay at home with their child are not out of pocket for doing so. We propose the expansion of force majeure leave to allow parents to take paid time off to look after children isolating," he said.
Testing of students was also highlighted by the TD.
"School children and staff who are symptomatic must be given priority for rapid testing, so that staff can return to work, and children can return to school rapidly," he said.
Another issue was the special needs education.
“Existing educational disadvantages have come to the fore during the pandemic. Children with special educational needs are the cohort who have missed out the most. We are concerned that special educational teachers will be pulled from pillar to post to cover absences, breaks and remote learning. We want to recruit 500 additional SNAs, to ensure that no child loses out," he said.
He also raised school transport.
“Finally, the bus fleet must increase so that whilst social distancing and safer transport of the 120,000 children who take part in the School Transport Scheme can be ensured, this does not come at the cost of some losing their seat on a school bus.
“Keeping our schools open is essential, and Sinn Féin wants to be constructive,’’ he concluded.