By Úna Kehily
The complicated debate around the re-opening of schools has dominated the media since the reintroduction of Level 5 restrictions in late December. The last several weeks have seen heated exchanges between Teachers’ Unions, the Minister for Education and other members of government about the safety of teachers and students returning to schools, and the possibility of the Leaving Certificate exams proceeding as planned in June.
Teachers and their unions have understandably expressed concern about returning to school, where they feel their safety and their students’ safety would be at risk. Considering the current restrictions state that not even one-on-one social gatherings are permitted, it is unsurprising that a school environment, where hundreds of students and staff are mixing five days a week, would remain closed. However, a significant portion of the general population does not agree.
It seems that a lot of prevailing opinion on teachers in Ireland is quite unsympathetic, even under normal circumstances. People think that teachers are lazy, that their holidays are too long and that their work is actually really easy. This sort of belief was also common during the recession. It’s clear that criticising teachers is an easy target for the public to air their grievances in times of crisis. Nonetheless, arguments that teachers are simply lazy and refuse to work are reductive; they are concerned, like the rest of us, about their health and the wellbeing of their communities.
While it’s understandable that parents are stressed with both working from home and managing their children’s online education, it is not fair to pin these frustrations on teachers. Despite claims to the contrary, teachers have in fact been working even when schools have been physically shut. They still have to hold online classes, prepare videos and exercises for their students, correct work, as well as dealing with stressed parents’ concerns. Adapting to online education is no easy feat, nor is it anywhere near the in-person teaching experience. Many teachers are working longer hours than ever before, with no real work-life balance, and would much prefer to be back in the classroom.
The last two months have seen members of the public going as far as calling for teachers’ salaries to be withheld until they agree to return to school. Threats like this do nothing but create division at a time when co-operation and understanding is vital. In a year where we have seen how interdependent we are for the protection of our safety and collective wellbeing, there is no good to come of vilifying our teachers for choosing to protect themselves, their students and their loved ones. Rather than attack them for standing their ground, we should direct our attention to how we have once again ended up in a position where closing schools is necessary to suppress the virus.