Northern Ireland news

Gerry Murphy: Teachers voice concerns as they prepare for schools reopening

Gerry Murphy, Northern Secretary of the INTO, says his members have deeply held concerns as schools formally begin the work of preparing to see children return

Gerry Murphy, INTO Northern Secretary
Gerry Murphy

Today sees INTO members and other teachers begin their official return to school to either initiate or continue the mammoth task of preparing for the arrival of all our children and young people.

Contrary to opinion from some quarters, teachers are absolutely opposed to the prospect of schools remaining closed. In fact, they have been working tirelessly for weeks now to ensure safe learning environments for our children.

Schools have faced difficulties from differing departmental responses to the virus which stem from the executive's primacy to resuscitate our ailing economy. That however is now water under the bridge.

Teachers' primary focus, after such a long absence, is to prepare schools to receive children and young people in unquestionably, the strangest of circumstances. This is no easy feat especially since their roadmap to reopening was issued with just six working days' notice.

But INTO members are pragmatic and will bring the necessary practical, common sense and hard work needed to make the reopening of schools happen. This will be managed by teachers despite the absence of clarity in the guidance and without the necessary adequate funding.

INTO welcomes the additional money announced by the minister of finance Conor Murphy at the end of last week and acknowledges that it represents a good start. Hopefully this signals an appreciation at executive level that education has for too long been underfunded and neglected in policy terms.

Yet a successful reopening for schools will only be sustained if a number of other things are also resolved.

The genuine concerns of teachers for both the safety of the children and their own wellbeing will only be assuaged when the procedures put forward in the guidance have proven their effectiveness. The increasing numbers of people contracting the virus as the R number rises is effectively undermining confidence amongst teachers.

Issues such as social distancing and mask wearing, which apply as the new normal beyond school gates, seems to have been waived in schools, thereby presenting what can only be described as an unexplained contradiction. Principal teachers faced with risk assessment outcomes that recommend vulnerable colleagues to work from home, will be forced to make budget busting decisions which for them will raise fears for the longer-term viability of their schools.

Children's mental health and wellbeing in addition to the school's access to the necessary supplementary support to address this very important issue remains an unknown. Also, the curriculum will require a compensatory adjustment. This is despite the pious hopes expressed by the minister and his officials that it can be delivered in its entirety thus ignoring potential examination issues for the year ahead.

These issues represent both additional and significant workload and stress for already anxious teachers and principals returning to work after a limited, or in many cases, non-existent summer break.

INTO and the other teachers' unions have been and will continue to raise the concerns of teachers with the employing authorities and the department.

Trade unions exist to represent the views of and provide support to their members. We at INTO, will not shirk our responsibilities to our members and the young people in their care, if that upsets some people then so be it.

Our schools are not separate from society, they are populated by students, teachers and other colleagues who perform a variety of essential support roles. These citizens need everyone's support as they continue to step up for the good of all and INTO will guarantee that they are supported and their voices heard.

Teachers have worked flat out, from the initial decision to close schools was eventually made, in an effort to ensure a continuity of learning was maintained for their pupils throughout these very difficult circumstances. The uncertainty arising from the ever-evolving trajectory of the virus and the Department of Education's response have made this task a complex and challenging one, but one that our members will, nevertheless, rise to.

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