The president of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland has said substantial progress on safety in schools is needed to avoid industrial action.

This week, ASTI members voted in favour of industrial action up to strike action, in pursuit of wider safeguards to protect teachers from Covid-19 in schools, as well as equal pay.

ASTI president Ann Piggott said further progress would be needed to ensure schools are safe and therefore avoid industrial action, including adequate testing and test turnaround times, a redefinition of close contacts, IT resources for students and teachers to facilitate continuity of learning, and reasonable accommodations for teachers in the "high risk" category.

"We need much more progress in order to get to the point where teachers believe that the safety of students and teachers is being prioritised during this pandemic," she said.

At the Standing Committee meeting, it was reported that there has been improved engagement with the Department of Education and NPHET, and a number of clarifications have been provided.

The ASTI will regularly review progress as engagement continues, it said.

In a separate ballot, ASTI members voted to take industrial action for equal pay for equal work, to be taken in conjunction with one or both of the other teacher unions.

The meeting decided that the ASTI will contact the other teacher unions, the INTO and TUI, with a view to seeking a combined effort "to bring an end to the scandal of pay inequality".

"The current teacher shortage crisis is a result of an unfair pay gap that cannot be allowed to continue," said Ms Piggott.

"Teachers affected are on a different pay scale than their colleagues for their entire career. This destructive policy has caused a drop in morale and has exacerbated a recruitment and retention crisis in second-level teaching. We will be seeking to work with the INTO and the TUI to end pay inequality," she said.

In a statement this evening, the Department of Education said that Covid-19 response plans in schools have been "very effective" in suppressing the transmission of the virus.

It said public health officials continue to affirm that schools are safe places for staff and students.

In response to the statement from the ASTI, the Department said it is facilitating ongoing engagement with union representatives, school management and public health officials.

It said schools are not key drivers of Covid-19 in the community, and that positivity rates are testing and positivity rates are 2.7% in primary schools and 2.1% in secondary schools. This compares to a national rate of 10%.

The Department said: "In instances where a school class or year group has to isolate for 14 days due to Covid-19, the Department is working with stakeholders to ensure that continuity of teaching and learning takes place. 

"This includes advising schools to provide access to school-owned devices for students or teachers where this is a barrier. 

"ICT funding of €50m was provided to schools earlier this year and schools were advised to use this funding to purchase additional devices if required."

Schools will reopen on Monday after the mid-term break.