Dáil Contribution on COVID-19

Dáil Contribution on COVID-19

I join other Deputies in extending my best Christmas wishes to people.

Across society, we are exhausted. We have learned more about the Greek alphabet than any of us cared to learn and the sooner we forget it the better. People in the healthcare system are exhausted, as are those in the education system. I will stick to the education system, which is what I know best. That is not to say I do not acknowledge the work of our front-line healthcare workers.

They are exhausted from the daily in-and-out of dealing with Covid and from the low level anxiety we are all experiencing but which is doubly potent when you are in a classroom of 30-odd children. You have low level worry about your own health and that of the people around you, the teachers in the classroom and the special needs assistants are the same. I spoke to my school secretary recently about the number of phone calls she has to make to harass parents who have to find their way in because their children have the sniffles or whatever else. That all factors in and keys in.

I acknowledge what Deputy Ó Laoghaire said on the huge extra burden placed on principals this year. Deputy Cullinane said governments must acknowledge when they get it wrong but Opposition must acknowledge when we get it right. The vaccination rate in Ireland is among the best in the world. I disagree slightly on HEPA filters. I think the minor works scheme is the way to do it because principals are used to using it. I agree with Deputy Ó Laoghaire on streamlining the advice because we cannot expect principals to be ventilation experts. Principals are used to the minor works scheme format and it is a good way of getting it to them.

It is affecting the way people teach at this time of year. This is usually a joyous time of year in teaching. Everybody is crammed in for the Christmas concert, play or whatever else. Unfortunately, we have had to atomise our children out in a way that does not come naturally to people who choose to teach in a primary school.

Masking of third to sixth class children was difficult to bring in. It goes contrary to what I would like to be doing with my children but the children have taken to it. There is no problem. My boy is heading in with his mask on and is used to it.

We have reacted as best we can to the substitute shortage. It is extremely difficult as there is a straight-up staffing problem in getting enough substitute teachers in place.

I reiterate a suggestion Deputy Ó Ríordáin made earlier and there was not a Minister for Education in the House to hear it. He suggested schools should be used for vaccination sites at primary level. That is a great idea because we do it already. There are other injections that children get in schools. It would minimise disruption for parents and teachers. The teachers would be well able to manage getting the kids in and out. That suggestion has merit and should be looked at.

We have to look to the medium term. First and foremost, we have to make an early decision on leaving certificate 2022. The students of that cohort deserve as early a decision as we can give them. Their schooling has been so disrupted over recent years. The sooner we can give them certainty about whether they will sit a physical exam or have a blended exam like last year, the better for their mental health as much as anything else.

Much of the good work being done in education is being masked by Covid at the minute. Good progress has been made on the pupil-teacher ratio over the last two budgets. The CLASS scheme, which the Minister of State introduced, has great potential but has been hamstrung by the fact that many special educational needs, SEN, teachers are being drafted in to provide substitute cover. We have to look to remediate the disruption in education, particularly for children who are vulnerable in terms of additional needs or socio-economic factors. Damage has been done to the education of our children. Hopefully, as we begin to move beyond this pandemic, we need to look to how we remediate it.

In the longer term, we need to trust our teachers. The reason our education system has performed so well, despite chronic underinvestment over a long period, is we still attract good people into teaching. It is a valued profession and we must continue to trust it. There has been an erosion of that, which should be rowed back. We need to invest in our education system, in our children and their well-being and in the physical fabric in which we educate, that is, the school buildings.

We need to prioritise the citizens’ assembly on education and make sure we are looking at an education system that is fit for purpose. The senior cycle review is important in that.

In the much broader scope, as we move beyond this pandemic, we need to re-examine the social contract across education, health and society. Since the general election in February 2020, there has been a massive expansion in the State and there needed to be. It was shown that the market was not going to respond or look after people during a global pandemic. As we move beyond this pandemic, we need to re-examine and revise that social contract and define what we feel the role of the State is in the life of the nation.