Teachers demand clarity on how to keep children and staff safe

Most classrooms across the north are now empty

TEACHERS manning frontline schools for key workers' children want urgent clarity on how to keep themselves and pupils safe.

Unions are growing increasingly concerned about classrooms becoming "a breeding ground" for coronavirus.

Schools are all closed until the end of the summer but some have been welcoming children of key workers and vulnerable young people.

On Wednesday, 800 pupils were being looked after in 442 schools across Northern Ireland - up from 760 and 405 on Tuesday.

Education Minister Peter Weir has issued guidance on clustering to ensure there are sufficient places.

Schools have also been asked to remain open over Easter and consider taking in children at weekends.

So far, close to 400 schools have indicated they are willing to cluster while 226 said they were prepared to open during the holiday period.

Almost 400 said they would accept volunteers to help teachers and classroom assistants.

Unions are concerned about buildings remaining operational, even on a reduced scale.

The INTO said its members were being left exposed without the reassurance of testing or personal protective equipment.

The National Education Union, National Association of Head Teachers and Association of School and College Leaders jointly called for teachers to avoid cleaning cupboards, skip staff meetings

and not touch class displays to limit their chance of catching coronavirus.

The Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) is the latest to express worry.

"Teachers are increasingly concerned about the lack of clarity on exactly what they need to do to ensure schools don't become a breeding ground for this virus,” said UTU General Secretary Jacquie White.

"We understand that the Department of Education is working on a safety strategy and we would urge them to bring this forward as soon as possible to stem the rising tide of anxiety among teachers who fear for their health and that of the pupils and their parents.

"Schools are playing a vital role in ensuring that as many key workers as possible can remain at work but if teachers are afraid to work because they fear their health is being risked or if they fall ill, then that will be counter-productive."

Ms White said schools were adopting physical distancing precautions and were disinfecting.

"But we need to know how often we need to disinfect, what surfaces; we need to know what are deemed safe pupil-teacher ratios and we need this guidance to be based on clinical evidence," she added.

“Testing is another area where the profession needs clarity."

The Department of Education has issued a range of guidance to schools, including the most up to date public health advice.

"Further advice and guidance on social distancing in schools will issue very shortly," a spokeswoman said.

"We are committed to ensuring that schools are able to operate in a safe and sustainable way, to enable the education sector to provide this vital service. We will continue to provide updated advice and guidance to schools in response to any emerging issues."

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