Exclusive: ‘The numbers were too high’ — Micheal Martin reflects on failed school reopenings and return to education

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Taoiseach Micheal Martin has admitted that the COVID-19 numbers were ‘too high’ to get teachers and children back into schools last month.

Relations have been fraught between the Government and the unions in recent weeks after several failed attempts to reopen schools.

It was confirmed shortly after Christmas that children across the country would start remote learning due to the high levels of COVID-19 in the community.

The Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) have, however, maintained that schools are safe environments but noted concern about the mass movement of students and teachers every day.

When the Government attempted to return to special education on January 21, the plan was met with severe criticism from the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation (INTO) and Forsa, which represents Special Needs Assistants.

The Fianna Fail leader then admitted that when they were trying to bring the children back to school in January, ‘the numbers were too high’.

However, he later paid tribute to the unions and said that he believes that there is a ‘commitment’ to bring children back to school.

Notwithstanding the fact that the public health specialists were clear in their minds that with the proper safety protocols that schools were safe places in themselves,  the numbers, I think, were just too high at that time to get people [back].

‘You can’t coerce people back into schools in the middle of a pandemic.

‘It is not a normal industrial relations situation.

I think what has happened since is, to be fair to the leadership of the unions, they reengaged with the Minister [Norma Foley] and they decided to do it on a phased basis now.

‘There is a general sense out there that there is consensus on the ground towards that approach.

‘Numbers are coming down now.

‘Overall, the atmosphere is better in making sure that the agreements that were entered into are followed through.

‘I would be confident that they will.’

While there is no concrete date for the return to schools, it is understood that they will be returned on a phased basis in February and March.

Children with additional needs will return to school on February 11 and February 22.

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