Northern Ireland

School staff seeking urgent clarity on transport, meals and cleaning

Thomas McMichael from Unite spoke about challenges of providing safe transport
Thomas McMichael from Unite spoke about challenges of providing safe transport

SCHOOL support staff have highlighted numerous concerns about the education restart - sharing worries about cleaning, transport and relaxed social distancing.

The NIC-ICTU Education Group, which is made up of teaching and support staff unions, appeared at the assembly education committee yesterday.

Members were told that classroom assistants, catering staff, cleaners and bus drivers had all been largely overlooked.

The group said it was concerned by the pressure put on individual schools and its leaders in relation to pupils returning to classrooms.

Greater clarity and direction was still required on meal provision, cleaning and transport, the committee was told.

Department of Education guidance suggests that principals should deal with issues on a school-by-school basis.

However, the committee heard that this was not sufficient.

Group chair Maxine Murphy Higgins said there was an urgent need for the guidance to be reviewed.

The committee was told that there had been a lack of consultation on the updated restart guidance, that instructions on face coverings excluded support staff and there was no dialogue on changes to the role of classroom assistants.

Thomas McMichael from Unite spoke about the challenges of providing safe transport on `yellow buses'.

Mr McMichael said there were fears among many drivers about returning to a "dangerous work environment".

Many plans for safety on board, he said, were "ill-thought out" and there were many vehicles that had yet to be fitted with protective screens for drivers.

He gave the example of a school, which he said had one hose and one bucket to `mop out' 30 buses each day.

"Buses will not receive the full enhanced clean required daily. It is not possible," he said.

"Some drivers are resorting to bringing their buses home and parking in their driveway."

Denise Walker from GMB said school life was a mix of complex roles.

"The guidance is vague and ambiguous in far too many areas and open to interpretation to everyone from the (Education Authority) to the 1,100 school principals," she said.

"Bubbles have extended in some cases to entire age groups and no consideration is given to staff who work across those bubbles.

"How many bubbles can you work across and stay safe?"

Anne Speed from Unison said the department's guidance had failed to recognise that the majority of the school workforce resided in the support constituency.

"There were mistakes made at the beginning," she said.

"The consultation process itself was built on a hierarchical structure, a lot of responsibility was placed on the shoulders of principals who are educators first.

"We all missed the point that what we need is a `Covid defence team' approach and that has not really been called for. We have not built it at school level or at departmental level either."

Alan Law of Nipsa said the guidance "descended into farce" adding there had been a lack of meaningful consultation.

Urgent attention, he added, needed to be given to those children who are entitled to hot meals.

The committee heard that there was a need to deliver school dinners as it was "often the only hot meal a child could get in a day".