Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire says that figures showing that there are 1300 classes across the country with 30 or more children underline the challenges faced by schools to remain open during the pandemic.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire was speaking today as he launched a Sinn Féin policy document ‘Keeping Our Schools Open’ which outlines key proposals to ensure safe education for children during Covid-19.
Teachta Ó Laoghaire said: “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 the 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 kids – that is one in five kids in a class over 30.
“In Cork last year, there were 147 schools with classes of 30 kids or more. These large numbers have also been seen in Galway (69) and Meath (74). In Westmeath, there was a class of a 45 in one class last year. These figures are shocking.
“Sinn Féin wants to abolish all classes of over 30 kids and never allow them to return, 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.
“We commit to a fund of €300m, which will be used to create additional space for schools that need it the most.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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. With the policies contained in our ‘Keeping Schools Open’ document, coupled with adequate funding and supports, we can ensure that schools are in a position where they can remain open now and into the future.
“Our key proposals are:
- Class Sizes and Space: An audit of school buildings to identify schools struggling most with lack of space, and a commitment of €300m to address this. Abolishing all classes of over 30 kids, and working towards attaining a pupil-teacher ratio of 20:1 at a cost of €72m;
- Protecting Jobs and Incomes: An expansion of force majeure leave for parents who must stay at home to mind a child who is self-isolating;
- No Child Left Behind: Recruitment of 500 additional SNAs at a cost of €14.4m;
- Rapid Testing: The introduction of rapid, priority testing for all symptomatic students and staff;
- School Transport: Increasing the bus fleet so that no child loses their seat on a bus.