Advice for ASTI members regarding continuity of teaching and learning
A new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and updated its classification to that of a pandemic on 11 March 2020.
In Ireland, as the COVID-19 health emergency continued to escalate, the Irish Government introduced a range of measures and restrictions to slow down the spread of this virus.
In announcing the closure of schools on 13th March, the Minister for Education & Skills stated that, in order to minimise the impact on teaching and learning, all schools were asked to continue to plan lessons and, where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where schools are equipped to do so. Schools were asked to be conscious of students that may not have access to online facilities and to consider this actively in their response. Schools were advised to prioritise supporting exam classes to continue to prepare for State examinations.
In his further communication with schools on 24th March, the Minister stated that ‘education continuity is critical, in this crisis…. In that respect, all schools are expected to proactively ensure that all of their staff contribute to the continuation of educational provision for their students during this period’.
Circular 0024/2020 issued on 27th March, reiterated that the primary focus of employees in the education sector is on continuing to deliver tuition to all pupils during the current school closures. All schools and teachers are required to continue to plan lessons and where possible, provide online resources for pupils or online lessons where schools are equipped to do so. Schools should also take into consideration pupils that may not have access to online facilities. Employers will need to consider how best to utilise employees to facilitate the delivery of educational services.
The virus and the restrictions have had a major impact on how teaching and learning has been transacting and has brought significant challenges and disruption.
The ASTI has responded while working remotely, by providing practical information and guidance on key issues as they arise on our website www.asti.ie
Teachers have responded with creativity and commitment:
Teachers have responded to this unprecedented situation with creativity, commitment and professionalism. Their first duty is, as always, to their students. This is despite the enormous challenges related to the sudden shift to remote teaching and insufficient and unequal access to required support and equipment for both teachers and students alike. Teachers are now faced more acutely than ever with the consequences of a decade of cuts and austerity.
The vital social role of the teaching profession is now obvious to everyone. Attempts to shift to online and distance teaching are reminding families just how skilled education professionals are, underlining that teacher-learner interaction is essential in quality education. This is especially true for learners whose special educational needs or challenging home environments make self-directed or parent-supported learning difficult. A return to normal classroom provision cannot come quickly enough.
Teachers have been thrust into a situation for which they have been ill prepared while continuing to provide an essential service. The ASTI’s position, communicated to management and teachers alike, is that every effort should be made in a context that encompasses reasonable expectations of all concerned. The school timetable cannot be replicated online.
The best advice is to maintain a specific time-bound work routine: allocate a certain number of hours to work each day; take into account circumstantial limitations (such as availability of broadband in your home); utilise where possible the technology you are most comfortable and competent with – this can be as simple and as effective as Gmail or other tools that you find effective; follow the broad objectives of your termly subject plans; get advice or encouragement from your colleagues; keep up to date with the emerging supports provided by PDST, NCSE, Scoilnet, Webwise, etc.
What is expected of teachers during the period of Covid-19 school closure?
What supports are there for teachers to adapt to this new situation?
Adapting to the idea of learning and teaching online is challenging: teaching is above all a relational rather than a transactional process. Face-to-face interaction with young people in a structured timetable is the norm. Teachers also have varying degrees of confidence, competence and knowledge of ICT. In these circumstances, teachers can feel cut adrift, given the rapidity of school closure and the resultant limited capacity of schools to prepare co-ordinated responses.
The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) Digital Technology team has developed a new dedicated webpage of curated content to support schools and teachers engaged in distance learning in order to provide continuity to pupils/students. www.pdst.ie/distancelearning
PDST has also prepared a new online teacher training course to help teachers continue to teach and support their students' learning online. For those to whom this is completely new and quite challenging, it covers how to get started. Those who are already comfortable with providing online support to their students will also find this course useful as it covers finding online resources, communicating with students and creating digital resources.
Further access to a variety of resources and information that has been developed by other service providers can be accessed at https://www.scoilnet.ie/support/
Teachers should use their professional judgement and expertise to select an appropriate range of resources for their students that will assist in the appropriate management of their work.
What is expected of teachers in terms of teaching?
Circular 0024/2020 states that teachers are required to continue to plan lessons and where possible, provide online resources for pupils or online lessons where schools are equipped to do so. Teachers cannot replicate the daily classroom experience online: nor should they be expected to. The same applies to students. Rather, teachers are expected to continue to support students’ learning during the school week. Teachers need to remind themselves that the current requirement for online tuition is a contingency measure in the context of a national emergency and therefore should adopt a balanced approach. Their normal planning documentation is important in this regard and should guide teachers in identifying the key learning objectives to be achieved by the end of the school year.
Crucially, what teachers do online depends on the class they are teaching: teachers know their students, their capabilities and needs. Teachers are focused on ensuring that students are completing the subject courses and are assisted in preparing for examinations. Teacher collaboration is also critical at this time: sharing approaches and content with fellow subject teachers will reduce individual teacher’s workload - and stress level. Teachers have already strong traditions of collaborating online via Twitter - #EdShareie and #EdChatie - and other social media platforms.
It is important to bear in mind that teachers and students are both learning in this new online classroom. Some activities will work well, some won’t. Teachers should also be mindful that not all students have the same degree of accessibility to ICT devices or broadband. Communication with students is key as is flexibility in terms of modalities for students to submit their completed work.
Finally, under the Digital Strategy for School 2015-2020: Enhancing teaching, learning and assessment, each school is required under Circular 0018/2019 to develop a Digital Learning Plan. All teachers are advised to work in parallel with their school plan.
Stay protected together online!
It needs to be stated that online learning is not without its risks. Many home computers, including those of teachers, may not have adequate levels of protection. Teachers should be confident that their computers are adequately protected by appropriate anti-virus software before using them for teaching. Insofar as is possible, use ICT resources and platforms which are already in use in your school. All schools are required to have an Acceptable Use Policy for students’ use of the internet at school that specifies the rights, responsibilities and privileges and sanctions connected with computer use. This policy complements the school’s Digital Learning Plan.
The national internet safety site BeSafeOnline has practical advice for all levels of usage of ICT devices - https://www.gov.ie/en/campaigns/be-safe-online/.
Additional information, advice and education resources are also available at https://www.webwise.ie/ addressing a range of internet safety issues and concerns.
Teachers are in communication with their students using a wide variety of platforms.
Contact between pupils and teachers should only be through a platform endorsed by the school and not through personalised accounts open to public viewing, comments or sharing.
The ASTI advises members not to use or exchange personal email addresses or phone numbers with pupils.
Teachers should not be expected to carry out any online teaching with which they feel uncomfortable or in the absence of agreed protocols.
Real-time teaching or live communication.
It must be borne in mind that real-time teaching or live communication can potentially give rise to concerns such as privacy and child protection. There are no current agreed guidelines in operation regarding such engagement with students. There have been few or no risk assessments undertaken in the vast majority of schools with regard to these activities and whole school policies have not been developed. It is in that context that teachers should consider the usage of such facilities. Many schools are uploading material for students rather than engaging in real-time teaching or live communication.
The ASTI is also aware that some teachers may occasionally have to engage on a one to one basis with students as part of their work. i.e Guidance Counsellor or Chaplain. The strong advice is that such teachers first check in with their management to ensure that how they are delivering their guidance counselling service for example is in agreement with and supported by management. This point cannot be over emphasised.
The Institute of Guidance Counsellors have provided guidance to their members that may be useful at the following link:
Communication with Parents/Guardians
Schools should strive to maintain a sense of normality for students, teachers and parents wherever possible. Communication is the key to ensuring this objective can be met. Where the school needs to contact individual students or parents, this should be in accordance with current contact protocols. Teachers should not be asked to personally contact students daily but only at times where normal classes are scheduled throughout the week.
Ensuring a work-life balance teaching from home?
Remote working or working from home is challenging – especially for teachers whose daily work is face-to-face engagement with young people, defined timetables and established school routines. It is easy to underestimate how important such routines are and to feel isolated in the current situation. The best advice is to maintain a specific time-bound work routine. Have a dedicated work space and allocate time each day to your teaching, including marking and responding to students online. Time boundaries are critical for work-life balance, especially when working from home. Use the technology you are most comfortable and competent with, follow the broad objectives of your termly subject plans and collaborate, get advice and encouragement from your colleagues. This is an unprecedented situation for every teacher, including those who are very skilled in ICT usage. Teachers working from home can only carry out a reasonable workload.
School closure has hugely disrupted the daily lives of students. Many are finding online learning difficult on many levels. Teachers should assign work that is relevant and manageable, mindful that such work will be carried out independently. Students need structure and guidance. The key objective is to ensure continuity of learning. Teachers should use their professional judgement in the assignment of independent work, whether written or practical, in line with the learning needs of students and available resources. Similar judgement should be exercised regarding feedback to students. While the ASTI is aware of the support that parents are providing, they cannot be expected to replicate the professional service that teachers provide.
Inequality of provision:
It should also be remembered that there are also issues with access that arise for students. Some students do not have a quiet place to work or may have to take care of younger siblings or perform household chores. The ASTI is aware of difficulties for many families where siblings and parents working from home are experiencing difficulties with internet access and availability of equipment. Broadband provision is at best sketchy in many rural areas in particular. The ASTI has demanded that measures are put in place to ensure that the digital divide across the country is addressed to enable all teachers and students to engage appropriately.
The ASTI has urged the Department of Education and Skills to provide resources and to ensure that every reasonable accommodation is made to prevent wider disadvantage occurring.
Teachers are also continuing to provide huge social support to their students, some of whom are experiencing multiple stressors in their homes. Teachers are themselves feeling stressed by this situation. The most appropriate response to students communicating distress is to refer students to the established school structures for pastoral care and guidance counselling and, where necessary, to follow the Child Protection Procedures for Post-Primary Schools.
The Department of Education and Skills has provided guidance from NEPS on student wellbeing - https://www.education.ie/en/Schools-Colleges/Services/National-Educational-Psychological-Service-NEPS-/covid-19.html
Also, the resources to be found at the following link may prove useful for students.
As is always the case, teachers continue to be alert to the possibility of child protection concerns that may arise in the course of their work. In such instances, ASTI members should continue to follow the normal reporting procedures, in accordance with their school’s policy and the Child Protection Procedures for Post-Primary Schools. Teachers should contact their schools Designated Liaison Person (DLP), and report their concerns in the normal way. Further information is available on the Tusla website at https://www.tusla.ie/services/child-protection-welfare/concerns/
Staff meetings - Croke Park Hours
Croke Park hours, as they are have known, are the means by which Staff Meetings are to be held in schools. In the current context, it is not possible to conduct such meetings. Accordingly, decisions on matters such as whole-school Post of Responsibility reviews are not possible at this time and should be deferred. Where pressing matters arise in the current circumstances, the ASTI would expect school managements to consult remotely with teachers to the maximum possible extent.
What advice has the Department of Education and Skills issued?
The Department of Education and Skills issued a document entitled ‘Guidelines on Continuity of Schooling - For Primary and Post- Primary Schools’ dated 2nd April 2020.
This document was issued without any consultation with teacher unions despite a number of representations having been made to them to work with us to generate an agreed document. The ASTI has protested this approach and an apology was issued.
What emerged is a poorly crafted document which is inconsistent and in a number of instances advocates unrealistic approaches and outcomes.
The ASTI believes that an important opportunity has been missed to provide agreed guidance that would be truly beneficial to all interested parties at this time. The published document enjoys no standing from an ASTI point of view and must be rejected as a purportedly useful intervention to support the continuity of teaching and learning during this Public Health Emergency.
Looking after yourself: Mental and Physical Health
The coronavirus outbreak currently dominates everyone’s lives. The number of stressors that are being faced on a daily basis and the exponential increase in covid-19 related information has generated high levels of anxiety. It is very important to mind our mental and physical health at this time.
The Department of Education and Skills operates an Employee Assistance Service for the 55,000 teachers in the country. The scheme is run by Inspire Workplace Services (formerly Carecall), which provides a 24-hour 7-day help line for teachers.
The 24-hour Employment Assistance Service helpline can be contacted on 1800 411 057. The ASTI along with TUI and INTO had been seeking such a service for many years. Under Health & Safety legislation employers have a duty of care for their employers and this service is funded by the Department to address part of that duty.
Teachers who are experiencing personal and work-related problems e.g. health, relationships, addictions, bereavements, stress, trauma etc will be able to get direct access to advice. Where appropriate this may involve free short term confidential one-to-one counselling. Further information can be found at https://www.inspirewellbeing.org/workplaces
The HSE provides advice on how to mind your mental health - https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/mental-health/minding-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak.html.
Remote working has also thrown up new challenges for teachers that can affect our physical health. Sitting at a computer for long periods is a very new experience in contrast to the active movement teachers have been used to throughout their working day. Below are some tips that members may find useful.
Good working posture
The number one ergonomic priority is establishing a good working posture at your workstation. You must be able be able to sit or stand in a neutral body position with a relaxed posture that requires no stressful angles or excessive reaching to complete tasks.
At a computer you should sit with hands, wrists, and forearms that are straight, inline, and parallel to the floor. The head should be level, facing forward with no turn to the left or right, and generally be in line with the torso.
Standing at the workstation is also recommended and potentially ergonomically sound, assuming you stand straight and your arms and wrists remain in the neutral position.
The proper keyboard and mouse configuration is just as important as posture when it comes to neutral body positioning. Reaching for input devices can lead to excessive fatigue, and after lengthy exposure, injury. The keyboard and mouse should be placed where they can be accessed without breaking any of the neutral positioning rules.
Adjustable chairs and desks
To encourage good posture and the neutral body position, you should use high-quality adjustable chairs, furniture, and equipment.
Proper display height and distance
Monitors and other display devices should be placed at eye level with the individual using them. Viewing a display should not require straining of the neck nor squinting of the eyes. Ergonomics dictates that individuals not be required to turn their neck to the left, right, up, or down to view a display.
Reducing repetitive movement
In an enterprise setting, more musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are caused by repetitive motion. Even if an individual applies perfect ergonomic principals, repeating the same motion over and over is going to cause stress and eventually lead to injury. The best way to combat this problem is by routinely changing tasks.
Standing up and moving around
Once an hour, workers should stand up and take a few minutes to walk down the hall, get a drink, look out the window, anything that gets you out of your chair.
Lighting should not cause glare on computer screens, which means that many workplace settings should be equipped with softer light systems. Lighting that is good for reading printed material is not necessarily the best lighting for computer displays. To prevent MSD injuries in particular, colder temperatures should be avoided.
To reduce the stress on the eyes, you should systematically look away from the monitor every 10 to 20 minutes or so to focus on something more than 20 feet away. Changing focus to something in the distance will cause the eyes to adjust and give the close-in focus muscles a chance to relax.
Ergonomic accessories footrest, headsets, document holder, and ball
Over the years, office equipment suppliers have developed ergonomic accessories to help enterprises and individuals improve their workspaces. Smaller individuals may benefit from a footrest when workstation desks are not adjustable, for example.
When it comes to office equipment, everybody should do whatever is reasonable to make workstations as healthy and ergonomic as possible.
The ASTI has engaged with the Management Bodies for schools on the question of insurance arrangements in the context of teachers engaging with their students remotely.
Each of the management bodies stated that they had some engagement with relevant insurers in their sector.
All have indicated that the typical policies extend to cover the home working of school employees. Teachers should follow best practices/guidelines as they would in normal operational settings and in these changed circumstances that remains the rule.
In the case of Community and Comprehensive Schools they are indemnified by the State. The indemnity states that:
The State shall indemnify the Board and the teaching and non-teaching staff in respect of actions claims or demands taken or made against them arising out of the discharge of their duties whether in respect of pupils or otherwise.
The Data Protection Commission (DPC) has issued guidance entitled “Protecting personal data when working remotely”
This DPC guidance provides practical advice about how employees can maintain appropriate levels of data security when working away from their normal workplace. It relates to the use of devices; email protocol and cloud and network access. It would also be beneficial for members to familiarise themselves with their school’s data security policies.
Other useful information can be accessed at this link: http://www.dataprotectionschools.ie/en/Disclaimer/?returnUrl=/en/
Teachers should keep personal data safe when working from home and follow the data protection policy around the use of email in their school. As previously advised, they should only use the school’s trusted networks or cloud services and comply with any rules and procedures about cloud or network access, login details and data sharing. All stored data should be adequately backed up in a secure manner. A good tip is to always back-up your files so that if you or your students have problems, you can always retrieve the work. A simple backup can be a USB stick with sufficient storage or a USB drive.