Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 September 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Covid-19: Review of the Reopening of Schools (Resumed)
We are back in session for two hours, hopefully. I welcome our witnesses joining us from committee room 2 to review the preparations for the reopening of our schools and how the reopening is operating in practice: Ms Lorraine Dempsey and Mr. Mark O'Connor, Inclusion Ireland; Ms Áine Lynch, chief executive officer, CEO, and Ms Clare Downey, manager of early years services, National Parents Council Primary; and Ms Mai Fanning and Mr. Paul Rolston, National Parents Council Post Primary. All the witnesses have been before the committee previously, so I will not reread the provisions of the Defamation Act 2009, as they will be aware that if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in a particular matter, they must respect that direction.
I ask Mr. O'Connor to make his opening statement and to limit it to five minutes.
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
I thank the Chair, members and clerk to the committee for the invite to address the committee today.
Established in 1961, Inclusion Ireland is a national rights-based advocacy organisation that works to promote the rights of people with an intellectual disability. To inform this submission, Inclusion Ireland conducted a short survey of 267 parents of children with disabilities on the reopening of schools.
Inclusion Ireland welcomes the reopening of schools and acknowledges the hard work of school staff over the summer period to make it happen. It is important for children to re-engage in education and the social interactions that schools bring. This is especially true for children with disabilities.
In May this year, parents told Inclusion Ireland how home schooling was not working for their child with a disability. Parents were working from home, they had more than one child at home and many children could not engage with education in the home. Now, with the reopening of schools, 51.5% of parents responding to our survey report regression in their child’s education and personal development. This lost ground can often prove difficult, if not impossible, to make back.
The vast majority of children with disabilities - 87.5% - will, their parents report, go back to full-time education. Some 9.5% of parents say their child will go back on a part-time basis with part-time remote learning and 3% of parents indicate their child will be engaged in full-time remote learning.
Some 80% of parents surveyed are worried about sending their children back to school during the Covid-19 period.
Thankfully, the level of worry in children is much less, with 54% having no concerns about returning to school. Concerns for parents include anxiety and the risks regarding Covid-19, no social distancing on school transport and a lack of good information from the Department of Education and Skills. Despite their obvious concerns, 86% of parents say their children will be going back to school.
A total of 11% of respondents to our survey reported that their children will not return to school due to high medical needs. Our previous survey in May found that remote learning was not working for this cohort. Inclusion Ireland raised this issue with the committee on 25 June and we have written to and met the Minister. At present, we do not believe that satisfactory provision is in place to ensure that this very small cohort has access to appropriate education.
While schools are encouraged to create class bubbles, many children share SNAs who may be allocated to students in separate classrooms. We do not believe that this has been addressed appropriately. It must be noted that the impact of class bubbles on children with disabilities will be greater than the impact on their peers. Parents report being told that there will be little or no access to supports such as HSE therapy services, the visiting teacher service, NEPS, assessments and special education teacher resources.
Inclusion Ireland is concerned that special education teachers will be used to cover absences of colleagues. While welcome additional resources have been made available, teachers will, as a precautionary measure, have to stay off work once they display any type of cold-like symptoms. This will place additional burdens on the substitute panel as we approach winter. Resource teachers will be used as cover. As we have already noted, parents are reporting regression in their children. As we have noted, children with disabilities really need these additional supports to make up any lost ground. HSE therapy supports and the visiting teaching service are vital educational supports for children with disabilities. We ask the Department and its partners to look at alternative means of delivering these services to children with disabilities.
A total of 57% of respondents to our survey were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with communications from the Department of Education and Skills. Parents reported that communication from schools was much better. A number of parents commented that the Department's guidelines were so vague that schools were having difficulty working them out, especially in respect of children with disabilities. Respondents stated that they were in the dark about school transport arrangements, sensory breaks, access to mainstream education where a child is transitioning from a special class and, with so many people in schools now wearing face masks, communication needs.
Inclusion Ireland acknowledges the hard work involved in schools reopening. However, parents have expressed some concerns about their children returning to school. Resource teachers must not be diverted from their posts. The Department must ensure that there is adequate cover on local substitute panels. SNAs must be allocated per class and not between classes. If this requires additional resources, we ask that they be made available. There must be comprehensive support guidelines for children who cannot attend school due to high medical needs or a parent's medical needs. These should include access to the home tuition scheme if appropriate. The Department and its partners must examine how previous external supports can be delivered, either through telehealth means or otherwise. Many children will require access to sensory breaks and this must be accommodated within the current guidelines. Will the Department examine whether children can continue their journey into mainstream classes from special education provision?
Ms Áine Lynch:
The National Parents Council Primary welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the committee on the preparations for the reopening of schools and how this is operating in practice. In making this submission, we are mindful that children have only just returned and it may be too early to fully understand their experiences and the experiences of their parents. We issued a survey to parents in order to inform this submission and this issue was raised by a number of those who completed the survey. The survey was open from 4 p.m. last Friday until 1 p.m. on 28 August and a total of 3,177 responses were received. I will go through some of the headline responses from the survey, and the one I want to start with is that 93% of children who went back to school enjoyed their first day.
The further comments that I make are within that context. When I was before the committee a number of weeks ago, over 90% of parents felt their children needed to go back to school. The high percentage of children who enjoyed their first day is really reassuring and strongly reflects the work done within schools to make sure school is a positive experience for children.
We asked parents about school transport. Only 8% of respondents said their children were using school transport and of that 8%, 67% were happy with the transport that was provided. Parents raised a number of issues. There seemed to be a mixed experience from children in regard to adhering to the new guidelines. Sometimes the experience is different going to and returning from school. In situations where different bus companies are involved, it is difficult to sit next to the same person. The availability of hand sanitiser and social distancing was raised.
Some 82% of respondents felt they had enough information in advance of the schools opening, but 12% felt they did not. Some 120 parents who responded to our survey said their school did not share any information with them. That is a matter of some concern.
Parents reported high satisfaction generally with information from schools through many media, such as videos that schools sent to them, and text messages and emails, outlining the procedures that were in place. That gave parents an opportunity to prepare their children for their first day back at school. Some parents had concerns that they had received inadequate information to do this preparation with their children and some said they received information but it was only the evening or two days before their children returned to school. Some 86% of parents said they were able to communicate with the school if they had concerns. However, 40% said they did not have a facility to do this.
We provided many opportunities for parents to give individualised responses. A number of issues came up in those responses. One of the key concerns parents had was what happens if a class or school has to close and what provision in terms of education would be made for their children outside of school. One of the issues with primary school is that independent learning is very difficult for children of this age. Parents had concerns about how school closures would affect their learning.
Pods were an issue. Children's happiness at being back in school was affected by whether they were with friends in pod groups and were able to play with friends at break times. Many parents said drop-off and pick-up times worked very well but some said there were definite difficulties, in particular for those with more than one child. A lot of respondents were concerned about parents congregating at school gates and not wearing masks.
Some parents feel the restrictions in schools should be looser, allowing the children to mix more. However, other parents believe the opposite. That is challenging for schools to manage. A number of parents are concerned about the overuse of hand sanitiser and believe that washing hands with soap is more appropriate for young children.
Windows and doors being open is an issue and is causing some concern, given the Irish weather over the colder months and how this approach will work. Some parents expressed concerns about their children in special classes. Parents are concerned that they will not mix with mainstream classes in the way that they are used to and that their children are missing out on the essential development of social skills.
They are the main issues raised by parents in the survey. As I said, it is very early days. Some of these issues may play out differently over the coming weeks.
I thank Ms Lynch for her presentation and for staying within the five minutes. I invite Ms Fanning to make her opening statement. Again, I ask her to confine her remarks to five minutes.
Ms Mai Fanning:The National Parents Council Post Primary is grateful for this opportunity. The mental and physical well-being of our children has always been and remains the main focus of concern for parents. We again emphasise the importance of fairness, equality and equity in the delivery of support for children and their families in the face of Covid-19. This must continue to be central to the consideration and implementation of plans as our schools reopen. All partners in education have committed to an assurance that no pupil or student will be negatively affected by the restrictions imposed due to this pandemic.
Full support for all schools is integral to delivery of that assurance. We must work collectively as educators to fulfil this promise.
The importance of our school communities and the interactions therein to our students' well-being is long established and recognised. There is no risk-free way to reopen our schools, but it is broadly accepted that the benefits to students being back at school are very important. That said, parents do have some very real concerns, particularly in light of the ever-changing demands related to Covid-19 and the rapid changes that can occur as a result of trying to manage normal life alongside this pandemic. Where such concern and potential for change exists, clear communications between all involved is essential. The NPCPP recognises and appreciates the commitment of the Government to provide substantial funds to assist schools to reopen and is extremely grateful to individual school management and staff for their hard work and dedication in preparing schools for the safe return of students and teachers. Parents are thankful to see our youth heading back to school, and we are certain they will endeavour to meet all the requirements demanded of them.
Some particular concerns have been expressed and we have asked that these be taken into consideration, acknowledged and addressed by education authorities and school management. Each school in our educational system is autonomous and therefore different. Each will have its own plans and will experience varying difficulties. Prompt responses and provision of required State financial or personnel support must be available. Likewise, assistance towards securing any additional space or infrastructure to ensure the safety of those in the whole school community must be forthcoming and promptly delivered. Dedicated points of contact between the Department, schools and parents are vital and must be maintained.
While the reopening phase is particularly demanding, there will be an ongoing requirement for support in the foreseeable future. On reopening, time must be given to inform students, and all in the school community, of the new routines being adopted at schools. Once routines are established, day-to-day co-operation and management will become more familiar to all involved. Procedures in the event of any suspected case or outbreak of Covid-19 in a school, including isolation requirements, should be calmly and sensitively explained to all in the school community to avoid any upset or panic should a case occur. Prompt testing and availability of results, where necessary, must be a priority.
There are concerns that the necessity to wear masks, as demanded in everyday activity outside schools where personal distancing is not possible, may not be applied in school. Transmission prevention is known to be key in the containment of the virus. At times during the day, student movement through corridors or congregation at various pinch points may be unavoidable. Masks should be worn at such times. Where students are unable to wear masks for health or other reasons, required personal distancing must be applied.
The NPCPP wishes to emphasise the importance of support for students and families who face particular additional difficulties or disadvantage due to personal or family circumstances and for those who require additional learning support or who have special needs. There are students who, for various reasons or in certain circumstances, may not be able to return to school or may resist returning to school. Provision must be made to assist these students and their parents by way of support. While the NPCPP welcomes the commitment to meet the costs of school transport where a student cannot avail of that provided, we are very aware that the most vulnerable families in our school communities will be unable to meet such costs upfront.
I welcome the witnesses, some of whom are returning witnesses. I appreciate their opening remarks and their comments. I also thank their organisations for their work over recent months. They have worked exceptionally hard and with the various school bodies to ensure the safe reopening of our schools, which is greatly appreciated.
All of us in this Chamber and elsewhere have received calls from parents who found it exceptionally difficult to manage the blended learning and some who had no access to learning in the intervening period. The witnesses' work and that of their various organisations is greatly appreciated.
I have read Inclusion Ireland's survey and it is welcome. From the queries I have received to date in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire, parents have either had blended learning at home and found it challenging or they have not been able to employ it. They are nervous that post Covid, things might not return to normal and I would welcome the witnesses' views on that. The witnesses might also elaborate on the home tuition scheme.
Before that, I wish to ask two other questions. I commend Ms Lynch of the National Parents Council Primary on her organisation's extensive survey. Taking in 3,177 submissions over five days and bringing them here today is commendable. Equally-----
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Yes. On blended learning and our comments regarding the home tuition scheme, our previous survey was taken during the time when pupils were out of school. We had an extensive survey with more than 1,000 respondents. It was a fairly clear picture of the volume of children who were not able to engage with that blended learning.
What is proposed for children who cannot return to school because they are at very high risk from Covid-19 is again a similar situation of blended learning. If the same children potentially are to be out of the school building setting for an extensive period, not just a couple of weeks or months, we propose that the children who so are identified should switch over to the home tuition scheme, which offers far more extensive one-to-one tuition of anywhere between ten and 20 hours depending on the age of the child. What is currently proposed under the continuity of schooling report given to schools early last week is that a teacher would be appointed to the individual child who is unable to return to the school building. While there is a framework there, we do not feel it would be anywhere near enough to just have remote-style tuition on a highly intermittent basis for children who cannot return to school for medical reasons.
That guidance also does not cover children who are at high risk and or indeed those who may have a parent or sibling who is at very high risk. That continuity of support for children in the home setting is only for children who are at very high risk themselves and the document clearly states that no other circumstances will be considered and it only applies to those pupils. As such, we do have a number of families where there is a child with disabilities who is at very high risk and is remaining at home and we believe that the proposals are less than satisfactory, particularly for those with very complex needs. In the document appendix, some samples are provided. The first three relate to children in mainstream school settings and special class settings and are focused on the teaching intervention being proposed. When it comes to the child in a special school setting where there are more complex needs, it reverts to measures such as alleviating any issues in the home setting around behaviour and frustration and does not really engage with their educational input. It is more about what can be done to alleviate things for the child at home. We consequently have major concerns that children in that very high-risk cohort that cannot attend school and who have complex disabilities will simply be managed, as opposed to educated, during that time.
I thank Ms Dempsey. Our time is limited and I would be happy to engage with her again on those aspects.
Turning to Ms. Lynch, as I said, the National Parents Council Primary's extensive survey of 3,177 respondents over five days is to commended. From my own knowledge, in the case of some of the schools in my own constituency and our own school as well, videos and text messages were very helpful and Ms Lynch referred to this in her own remarks. This was particularly so for the junior classes, to ease them into primary school but also for those who are returning to schools with newly-implemented Covid compliance.
Ms Fanning touched on the issue of mental health and well-being at post-primary level in her opening remarks. I have raised the issue of student support teams before. Will Ms Fanning comment on those, their importance and their role in the Covid environment? I thank all the witnesses very much for their attendance.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I am not sure what the specific question was but, with regard to the usefulness of the text messages and videos, many parents said that these really helped their children. Children going back to school and their parents were anxious about what it would be like because of what had been reported in the media about the changes that would be made. Seeing the school, how to enter and leave it and what the classrooms and pods would look like was very reassuring. Families who did not get this information said they would have liked to have received such support because its absence added to their child's anxiety on the first day. It was also an anxious time for children just starting primary school because normal things such as visits to the school before attending and parents going in with them on the first day were all very restricted. That first day for junior infants was particularly challenging for some children.
I welcome the guest speakers today and thank them for their contributions. With everybody else here, I welcome the opening of schools and I hope that they will remain open. We all know the impact the closure of schools had on many pupils. In many cases, students with special educational needs were disproportionately impacted by these closures.
I am concerned about the lack of information pertaining to children with special educational needs in the roadmap for the reopening of schools. There should have been a link with child development teams or the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, within the roadmap but that was not the case. A lot of therapies normally offered to children, such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy, were not offered during the period of the Covid closures or were only offered in a very limited fashion. In other years a transitional report would have been prepared with the student who was transitioning from primary school to secondary school and with the child development team. This helped prepare students for that transition and showed parents how to support them. This proved invaluable to schools. Are the witnesses aware of whether such reports were prepared with students this year? I believe they were not although I am open to correction. I hope I will be corrected on that. The report might include things as simple as where lockers should be located or that timetables should be colour-coded. Those things are very important, especially for children who have autism spectrum disorder, ASD. Will therapies now be offered on a regular basis, as they were before?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Families and their children experienced a massive reduction in the availability of, and access to, professionals who deliver therapeutic interventions for children over the last few months. It is well known that the HSE had to redeploy a great number of staff to Covid swabbing centres. These staff included speech and language therapists and physiotherapists. These are the people who need to work directly with our children. While I am aware that returning these people to their posts is a priority, in certain areas it has been communicated that further staff may need to be redeployed to swabbing, particularly in areas where Covid is deemed to be on the rise. There is conflict between getting those well-trained professionals back to their posts working with children in schools and homes and carrying out such transition planning, and the need for the health service to react to Covid. At a previous committee meeting in June we said that, in whatever planning the HSE carried out, it needed to look at a permanent workforce relating to Covid to allow therapists do what they do best, which is to support our children.
On the transition plans which would normally be prepared in the early part of the year in which a child is moving from preschool to primary school or from primary school to post-primary school and on plans for school-leavers with disabilities, there was major disruption regarding the ability to contact teams, where a child had a team to provide such supports.
Schools have transition passports so information around a child's needs may have been provided directly by the parents, not necessarily by a health professional. There is a good passport for children with disabilities who are in receipt of access and inclusion model support when they transition from pre-school to primary school. That end was covered whether or not the related professional reports accompanied the passports and at least the teachers of junior infants would be well aware of the needs and strengths of the child coming into the classroom.
There was considerable disruption to the profiling process for children transitioning from schools to adult services. I know that we are talking about third level, further education, announcements and leaving certificate examinations but a large cohort of children who have left school this year face major disruption in their passage to what they will do in the course of the next few years and that needs to be addressed at another committee session.
There are existing waiting lists but we are looking for an increase in the number of available therapy staff to support schools. I believe the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has managed to find a way around the redeployment of therapists with which it had engaged and has sanctioned the direct hiring of an additional 31 therapists. That one's resource can be taken away and used for something else shows that the system is not working during Covid-19.
In considering supports for children in schools, the education sector needs to look at directly providing special speech and language therapy. Getting teams back together is essential for continuity. Scaffolding supports around schools and children is now more crucial than ever.
I totally agree with Ms Dempsey and thank her for that reply. It is imperative that those supports are put back in place for the children who need them.
Ms Dempsey spoke about the fact that the home tuition scheme is only open to those students who are at a high risk of contracting Covid-19. I would be concerned that the scheme is not available to students in other circumstances. Some parents to whom I have spoken are afraid that their son or daughter would refuse to return to school because of having been out of school for so long. Those parents and children also need support.
I thank our guests for their contributions and the work they have done. I know they are involved with voluntary organisations which can be time consuming for many of them.
Do our guests feel that we have got enough information out to young people? Is there much more that we could be doing? Everyone should be working together on this. Could we use social media more effectively than we are to get the message out to young people? What are the views of our guests on that issue?
Ms Áine Lynch:
At primary level, we are relying on getting information to parents who can mediate that information to their children. As well as getting information out to young people, it is important that as students start to go back into school, we have mechanisms to listen to their experiences of that return. We should hear what is working for them and what is not, what keeps them feeling comfortable and what is raising their anxiety. We must have two-way communication and ensure that mechanisms are in place for young people, in primary and post-primary, so that we are hearing their voices about what is working for them.
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
I will add that there are great resources out there for children. One thing we could do better would be to collate those resources. The information on the website of the Department of Education and Skills is tricky to wade through even for us professionals but a lot of good stuff is available. There are wonderful videos that are aimed at children about going back to school. We can tell from some of the surveys that have been carried out by ourselves and the National Parents Council that there is anxiety about going back to school. Some students are worried about whether they will still be doing a piece from a special class into a mainstream class and what school will look like when they go back. Lockers will be removed and access might not even be provided to them. Some students worry that they will have to stay within their classrooms. Some of the information is not trickling down to children as much as we would like and that is coming through in the anxiety that parents have reported seeing in their children. Some of the resources out there are fantastic and it a matter of collation and not reinvention.
Is there a lack of co-ordination in trying to get out information? Are we not using the mechanisms that are there effectively enough?
Who should co-ordinate the use of those mechanisms for getting information out?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
In terms of collating information, independent agencies have produced information for the return to school targeted at children of different age groups. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a series of videos for different age groups on going back to school. The key point is that individual information for individual children has been problematic. We mentioned previously videos of the classroom providing a tour of what children with developmental disabilities or autism can expect when they walk in the school door and what their classroom will look like. These are all the key pieces that children who do not manage change very well would require. There has been a huge gap in the experience of parents around that very individualised information. Another point is to ensure that schools are signposting the information that is provided by the NCSE and other organisations such as the Middletown Centre for Autism, which all have back-to-school packs targeted at parents and children. If the information does not trickle down to the parents, how are they to know that it is available? Reports have been mixed as to whether parents have been aware of the information. That comes down to communications with schools directly.
Reference was made to a survey of parents and the finding that 82% of respondents were satisfied that they had enough information. That means 18% were not satisfied. I know one will never get 100% satisfaction in any survey. Was any reason identified among the 18% as to why they felt they did not have enough information?
Ms Áine Lynch:
In the survey by the National Parents Council, 120 parents said they did not get any information before their child started back. Other parents felt the information came too late. Information may have been provided to parents a day or two or on the evening before a school reopened and they may not have managed to work with their children on that information and get them to understand what was going to happen. They found it was too late to do that work properly with their child before school started.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
I wish to briefly make a couple of points on communications generally. First, there are many different media and given that schools are autonomous, the information is best coming from the schools to the parents. The key in communications is that it is ongoing and that the language used is clear. Quite a lot of the information that comes through to the school is not in language that a parent may be familiar with. That information has to be translated by the school so that the parents, students and children understand what is going on.
In our submission and in general terms we have spoken about the early weeks of going back to school. This is brand new for us all. I refer to the understanding of routine, the gaining of knowledge for each pupil, what each pupil requires and what pupils' needs are as they move into the school. This is a critical period during which the schools, parents and children all have to work together. It is worth taking time at the start, even at the risk of not covering some of the academic side, to get to know exactly what each student needs and ensure the two-way communication is understood and delivered.
As I have five minutes, I will do this in two parts if that is okay. First, I will address Inclusion Ireland. It seems to me, and the previous survey presented to the committee demonstrated this, that children with special educational needs and intellectual disabilities were among those who suffered most due to the schools being closed, despite the best efforts of everyone. From talking to parents and children, it seems the lack of access to schools during the lockdown was extremely difficult. It is vitally important that these categories of children are prioritised. Very often, these children have not been a priority for the Department of Education and Skills. If ever there was a time for children with special educational needs to be a priority, it is now.
The roadmap presents some significant difficulties. The first point that occurs to me concerns children who are in units.
There is a lack of clear guidance from the NCSE and the Department on a number of issues, including face coverings, but also units. In some instances, principals are asking children and families to choose between the unit and the mainstream class. Being in the unit reduces the value of the inclusion and integration with the main class unit. If they are to go into the mainstream class, it to some extent undermines the argument for the unit. That should not be the case because access to both is needed.
I have another question for Inclusion Ireland. Deputies are hearing concern from constituents over school transport. There are issues with school transport for students with special educational needs. Very often there is a lack of access to taxis. It that on Inclusion Ireland's radar?
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
The issue with the unit is something we brought up earlier. We think the existing information is inadequate as to whether a child will be able to continue his or her journey from the unit and do that piece where he or she spends part of the day in the unit and part of the day in the mainstream class. I do not know what the solution is. As our colleague has mentioned, each school is autonomous and different situations arise in each school. The information coming from the Department is certainly not up to standard.
School transport is an issue, especially for children with special educational needs. We are aware of children who may travel an hour, an hour and a half or two hours to school each way in a taxi, perhaps with two or three other children with very little social distancing. That is a particular issue.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
I wish to add a point on the transport issue for students with special educational needs. There is a divergence in planning. Some areas have recognised that having pupils from two special schools sharing one bus leads to the potential risk of two school closures if there is an outbreak and have managed to adjust the routes separating those two school buses. There is a particular issue in rural areas in getting taxi support where no actual bus route is in place and where they cannot get a taxi to serve that route, which leaves the parent having to bring that child significant distances to school. We are not talking about half an hour. We are talking about 100 km or more in some instances. They have been well documented in previous committee meetings. Parents are concerned about the social distancing particularly with the cohort on the special school transport who in the main cannot wear any form of face covering, leaving them more open to risk.
As Ms Lynch mentioned earlier, children going to school may not necessarily be on the same special school transport vehicle on the way back, which mixes it all up again. When trying to reduce the risk of transmissibility it is a challenge for parents to see how that will work.
I appreciate all that and those issues have been well flagged.
I have some questions for the National Parents Council. Parents are not totally clear as to when they should keep their children home. They also have concern over income support. If they do the right thing by keeping their children out when they display symptoms or if there is a positive case in the school, they are worried that they will be significantly out of pocket. They feel there is a need for Government intervention there. Do the representatives of the National Parents Council agree?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Absolutely and we have identified it a number of times. We highlighted it in our statement. Back-to-school time is always an expensive time for parents in the best of years and this is a year that has had significant additional costs with the closure of schools since March and the home-schooling that has already gone on, in addition to the requirements that might come from learning outside the school requirements nowadays. In particular we have raised the cost of transport where a student or parent may have to do that. Many of the most vulnerable parents cannot afford to pay for those upfront. We need to find a mechanism to avoid them being penalised from that perspective.
The commitment was given by everybody in the advisory group that no student will suffer as a result of Covid-19. This is part of that so those kinds of costs must be covered.
Ms Áine Lynch:
In terms of the question around whether schools close or classes cease and income support, when schools closed in March it happened overnight and we were trying to catch up to the crisis all the time. Thought now needs to be given at the income level if parents need to take time off work, but also at the education level. We need to plan for when classes cease or schools close for periods of two weeks and how we are going to support children and families during that time. We now have a planning period to do that.
That is no problem. I thank the witnesses for coming in this morning. I want to focus on some of the practical experiences that parents and children are having in this first week back to school and, of course, it impacts different children at different ages.
I refer to what Ms Lynch said about junior infants. The junior infant children have never experienced anything other than going into school and their parents not coming in with them. The difficulty, and I speak from personal experience, is more for the parent than the child on the junior infant side.
It is, however, a different thing for children going into fourth or fifth class who are more socially aware and on whom the long break has more significant psychosocial impacts. When Ms Lynch was here earlier in the year - I believe it was it late May or early June - we talked about the importance of how the children were going back to school as much as when they were going back. We spoke about the emotional resilience and emotional support they would need to cope with coming back, re-establishing their peer networks, coping with a new physical environment and, indeed, anything that has been going on at home for them in the interim. Could Ms Lynch talk about how that emotional support is being acknowledged with schools? I am aware Mr. Roland mentioned the importance of this already but could Ms Lynch talk about that, please?
Ms Áine Lynch:
I am happy to come in on the issue of primary schools the Deputy referred to when I came in previously around the end of May or beginning of June. Schools have put a huge focus on the mental health and well-being of children. There are difficulties that are almost insurmountable at junior infant level because parents cannot physically go into the classroom. Schools were doing a lot around videos before they went in and there has been much communication with parents. However, many supports have been put into schools around that fourth and fifth class issue. Much direction has been given to schools about the engagement of children back into the school with their peers and working through the experiences they have had over the past six months rather than through the curriculum. The 93% of children who enjoyed their first day is a reflection on how that has been taken up and supported by schools and we hope that will continue. We need to constantly be vigilant for children who are struggling with that. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has put many supports into schools for either groups of children or individual children who are having a particularly hard time reintegrating back into school. Tusla is also looking at that as well. They need to continue and we need to keep a close eye. It is still early days, though, so we may not yet be aware of some of the issues that might come up.
It may take a couple of weeks for any child to settle back in, particularly this year. From a practical perspective at post-primary level, the absence of lockers and having to carry big, heavy books and also, perhaps, some gym gear or equipment for practical classes or whatever it may be, all adds to the anxiety of managing a day and managing it differently as well. Some of the videos have been helpful. I do not know about other members of the committee but I have seen few videos that have been targeted at children other than videos of the new school arrangement, or walking on this or the other side of the corridor. The actual experience of a child coming in, sanitising his or her hands and wondering where he or she can put his or her stuff can generate significant anxiety for a 14 or 15 year old.
With the time I have left I want to raise, in particular, from the perspective of parents, the drop-off and collection arrangements. When Ms Lynch was here before I asked her and the Department about looking at this from the perspective of parent and sibling coordinated drop-offs rather than class drop-offs. If we are concerned about the management or congregation of parents around the school and the impact on risk for community transmission in that way, then minimizing the hanging around may alleviate that. One might have one child who is collected an hour early or another child who is collected 40 minutes early from the same family, or three children in three different classes. It really is going to make it much more difficult for parents.
Ms Lynch referred to it earlier, but could she make a broader comment on it for the committee?
Ms Áine Lynch:
Dropping off and picking up pupils was probably one of the main issues that parents commented on within the survey. There will be some teasing out of how this works. Until it is in operation, it will be very difficult for schools to determine whether something works. Every school is different in terms of the space and the access areas it has. Parents and schools will have to work together on it, perhaps with a sharing of good experiences within schools. We have heard from parents that for some schools it is working very well and smoothly and there is flexibility, whereas in other schools it is not working as well. If schools can share with one another practices that are working well, rather than everybody having to reinvent the wheel, that would really help matters.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable level of work done. It has been a very busy August for anybody involved in education in any shape or form. Having visited a number of schools in my constituency, I know that principals have been extremely busy since the start of August to make the preparations that were necessary. I am sure that is true of the representative bodies that have attended the meeting. I thank all our guests for their very detailed presentations. Many of the questions I had intended to ask have been answered.
I might direct my first couple of questions to Ms Fanning. She made a point earlier about having a dedicated point of contact within the Department for parents. Does she believe that is in place and functioning adequately at the moment?
There is an issue with older children, often from particular socioeconomic backgrounds, choosing to finish their schooling early. Does Ms Fanning believe that enough supports are in place to get these children, who are often from vulnerable backgrounds, back into the school system to finish their education?
Ms Mai Fanning:
The dedicated points of contact between the Department, schools and parents are vital for communication and getting the information across. As Mr.O'Connor from Inclusion Ireland noted earlier, there is a great deal of good information on the departmental websites. Nevertheless, getting that clearly translated and communicated to the whole school community may need to be worked on a little more. The area where things are falling down is in miscommunication to parents. Schools, within themselves, are working hard to communicate with the parental and student body. If, however, schools are not getting the information they require to clarify matters, they cannot pass it on.
There are some grey areas. I acknowledge that it is still early days for secondary schools because many of them have not yet fully kicked in. There have been sort of lead-in days for different classes and some of them will not kick in full time for another week or two. Grey areas have come up, however, and one of the main ones is that children who are classed as at risk because of a medical condition, but not at high risk, are in a dichotomy at the moment where they cannot go back to school because they are at risk. The information from the Department refers only to high-risk children. For such kids coming back to school, especially at second level, a remote-learning facility needs to be in place for them so that they will not be left behind.
They may not be a large majority, but they are still children in need of education and who have a right to education because of whatever disability they may have, be it medical, physical or anything else. Those children must be supported within the schools. If a school does not have the facility to provide remote learning for those children, such a facility must then be put in place, either through the school system or instigated by the Department, to help and cater for those kids. Most schools are using a holistic approach to look after the academic side and the mental well-being of students coming in.
I only have a little time left. We have rightly concentrated on children in this discussion. I also have a question for the representatives from the two parents' organisations. Has research been done on the effects on working parents? Are we seeing many parents deciding to step out of the workforce this year because of the level of uncertainty regarding school closures?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
I am not aware that we are seeing that now but it is identified as a potential difficulty, particularly where something like a school, class or pod closure happens and students have to return home and parents must then take some time off. That featured in the media today but it has been an ongoing concern that where those kinds of things happen, parents may have to step back from the workplace and suffer financially thereafter.
In answering many of the questions that have arisen, the key point that has emerged is that this is a learning period. We are just back at school, we are starting to learn and we need to learn from this period. We all need to work together to identify the various things that are going to happen and that we cannot tell will happen in advance, but we will learn as we go. The important thing is that we work together, learn and put in place the management structures and supports that will be necessary behind all the things we will learn. It is pointless opening the schools if we do not learn and look after the children, teachers and families involved. In an unprecedented reopening time, there are new lessons to learn and we need to learn, manage and support them properly.
I thank all the speakers for their comprehensive presentations. I have three or four questions. I do not think I will get through all of them but I will try.
I direct my first question to Ms Dempsey and the representatives from Inclusion Ireland. It was heartbreaking going through that organisation's report and learning of the regression that many students with intellectual disabilities have suffered during the Covid-19 period. The Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, will be taking statements in the Dáil tomorrow. What are the main messages the representatives from Inclusion Ireland would like us to convey to her? Do they have any solutions they would like us to address to the Minister of State and ask her to implement quickly?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
We were fortunate to have an introductory meeting with the Minister the week before last, and we have a follow-up meeting organised for next week with the Minister. The key areas for us are supporting schools to have adequate resources to support additional needs for children with special needs that might have been compounded by the extensive period at home. That would involve looking at the whole school profile in respect of making amendments to it for the allocation of special education teachers and SNAs. We feel that it can be challenging enough at times, but especially in a context where there may be ongoing issues for some children settling back into school because of leftover changes in behaviours, that challenge or otherwise. Where schools identify a need for those additional supports, there should be a quick response.
Ms Fanning reiterated the issue of those at very high risk and the plans for supporting them at home. The Department currently has no plans to support children in the high-risk medical group at home. They are expected to attend school. Even if those children are given a medical instruction to stay at home but they are at high risk, the document is not clear on the guidelines regarding whether the Department would step in and have that continuity of schooling programme open to them. There is no indication as to what will happen in the case of children who have another family member at very high risk, whether a parent or a sibling. This is happening already. Families are having to make extremely hard decisions concerning their children, particularly at second level, who may not be going back to school because either a sibling or parent is at very high risk and there are concerns about the potential to bring infection back into the home, with catastrophic results.
Other than engaging with Tusla, it does not seem there is any proposal for those children to engage in continuing education. There is psychological damage to the child who may not want to put their family member at risk. There is also an educational issue for them in that, without standard provision being made in the plan for them, those children will be at home. They will not have access to home tuition. The proposal is not that the parents want to engage in home schooling. They want their children to maintain contact with the school but that should be formalised rather than what we hear now, which is that it is left up to individual schools.
In terms of additional supports from NEPS, those teams would be scaffolding around the schools, whether coming from NCSE or children's disability network teams, to ensure there is enough capacity there and that the schools feel supported in addressing any challenges that children with disability may have, which were compounded over the past six months.
Regarding parents who may be unable to return to employment, particularly if the child is in the very high risk category, there is no allowance for them other than to take permanent leave from their employment, with catastrophic economic consequences to the family unit. These people are having to make decisions. They might have term contracts according to which they were at home during the summer but they are expected to turn up to work this week and, unfortunately, they cannot. There is no provision for them.
I thank Ms Dempsey. I have a question for the representatives of secondary school parents. They have probably not been able to address their members on this so they might give a personal opinion, if they have one, or they can come back to me on it. Regarding the adjusted leaving certificate results that will be out next week, is there particular information that parents would like to receive on how their children were ranked or given the grade they ended up with? Has that come on to the representatives' radar?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
The most important thing about the calculated grade system is that it is seen to be fair and equitable. That has always been the desire from the first time it was discussed. That commitment has been given by every partner in education as we have worked through that system. We have indicated that we will not know how satisfactory the system is until the results are delivered. However, in fairness, a number of the potential issues have been looked at and addressed. The general consensus among parents is that they have been addressed satisfactorily. The proof will not be fully delivered until we see the results and how they fit in with CAO and college openings. There has been a lot of focus right through the process and parents are generally happy. There will always be some students and parents who are unhappy. The appeals process and the transparency of that process will be critical. The calculated grade system has never been perfect. There has never been a possible perfect solution to it. We need to make sure that we address the issues as we go and that the final result is acceptable to most people. I believe most parents think that to date it has been reasonably addressed but that needs to continue and have a knock-on effect into third level. There will always be individual cases which may come through the courts but which hopefully can be dealt with through the system. There are no specific scenarios that we can identify right now that any large cohort of parents are looking for. They are just looking for fairness and equity.
I thank the witnesses for attending. Some of my questions have been answered so I will not go over them. The past six months have been surreal, to say the least. The task that the education sector has endured has been mammoth logistically and incredibly difficult for all concerned: pupils, teachers and anybody who works in the sector. It is a different environment from what it was. The world is a different place to what it was six months ago and the classroom is a different place to what it was six months ago physically and emotionally for all concerned.
My question is rather simple. Are the witnesses satisfied thus far with the provisions the Department of Education and Skills made to get things right this week and last week as children go back to school? This has been extremely difficult for everybody involved. Thus far, are the witnesses satisfied with the provisions made by the Department for all educational settings, particularly primary and secondary schools?
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
I acknowledge that significant work has gone into this. We all know anecdotally that school principals and teachers have been working throughout the summer to get the show back on the road during what would ordinarily be the summer holidays. This has to be acknowledged and commended.
In general, a lot of the information from the Department is reasonably good. Speaking from the perspective of special education, some situations need a little more teasing out and, in our opinion, some situations have not been fully considered. We have already mentioned young people transitioning from special education to mainstream education who spend part of their day in both. We have already mentioned the SNAs hovering between two or three classes, where each class is meant to be a bubble. The issue we feel has not been addressed adequately is that of children with complex disabilities and medical needs. Many of these children will not be back in school any time soon. We do not believe the Department's guidelines will allow them adequate access to a full education. In our previous survey in May, parents were clear that what their children needed was access to a highly skilled teacher and that they, as parents, were not in a position to provide this education. We would like to see a little bit more thought put into this.
Ms Áine Lynch:
From the point of view of the primary sector, the Department has issued huge amounts of information, guidance and support to schools and parents in recent months in an ever shifting environment, which has been extremely challenging. The public health advice also changed over that time. The schools have opened in a very good position with the work put in by the Department and the schools. The area that needs specific attention is with regard to children not in school, whether for the reasons just outlined by Mr. O'Connor or because of events such as what happened yesterday when a class had to go home. What is the provision for these children and their education? This is the area which really needs some work and attention. As time goes on, we do not know how frequently this will happen or whether there will be localised lockdowns that affect schools. This is the area where we really need to do some work.
Ms Mai Fanning:
I echo what has been said by Ms Lynch and Mr. O'Connor. I will also focus on the grey area where there are children who do not fit into a box and, for whatever reason, cannot go back to school. It is of the utmost importance that the Department facilitates them with a remote education system because some schools are not in a position to offer this facility, nor would they have the infrastructure in place for it. This is absolutely paramount and needs to be addressed for second level students. It does not matter what year they are in; it is important that it is looked at.
I thank the witnesses. I acknowledge the nervousness and worry of parents and students over the past weeks as schools have started back. I also want to focus on the positives.
It is good to see them interacting with their friends and maybe getting back to some sort of normality. A large number of schools have done their very best over the past while. There have been teething problems, and we should acknowledge that.
I want to pay particular tribute to Gaelscoil Osraí in Kilkenny, which held a meeting about a week before school resumed. A GP and, I understand, a child psychotherapist were in attendance for the benefit of parents. I thought that was an excellent idea. There was a follow-up Zoom call with my child's class teacher. I thought that was excellent.
I will sit closer to the microphone. From what I hear, there have been signal issues all day.
Some really good work is being done by schools and teachers. I want to focus specifically on resource hours, SNAs and assessments. Do the witnesses feel enough has been done to date by the Department and Minister to ensure that additional resource hours and SNAs are provided? I do not know if they are aware of a survey that was carried out by AsIAm, the autism charity. It surveyed 1,100 parents, 77% of whom said their children who are getting additional support would need even more support. Half of the parents surveyed felt they would not get it. That shows the experience of parents of children with additional needs. They have to fight for absolutely everything and it is sad that they think their children will not get the additional supports they need. I would like to hear the opinions of the witnesses in that regard and what more can be done in the context of resource hours, SNAs and assessments. There have been major delays in assessments, which will have a knock-on effect on children getting into ASD classes.
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
I understand that 51.5% of respondents said they had noticed some or significant regression in their child's educational and personal skills development. There is potential in terms of special education teaching hours. It is welcome that the Department has provided extra resources for the substitute panel. However, we are coming into the winter season. Teachers would ordinarily go to work with a sniffle or a cold. At the moment, however, when they have any signs of anything that could resemble Covid-19, they have been told to stay at home, and rightly so. That will put significant pressure on the substitute panel. When no one is available on that panel, special education teachers will be called in and away from their primary duty of supporting young people with disabilities. We would like the Minister to put some additional resources into substitute panels.
In terms of SNAs, there will be direct substitution. We are still worried about SNAs going between a number of classes. If possible, schools could put forward cases to the Department for consideration on a case-by-case basis to ensure there is no possibility of cross-contamination.
Regarding class bubbles, anecdotal evidence indicates that parents have been told that they will pose difficulties in terms of in-class assessments by HSE and NEPS personnel. As my colleague indicated earlier, many HSE personnel have already been redeployed to contact tracing and testing.
Has it been Mr. O'Connor's experience that children are not getting the assessments that are required? I do not know anybody who had his or her appointment stalled due to Covid who has now received a follow-up appointment and assessment. Is that his experience? He stated that he has heard anecdotal evidence to the effect that there are issues about personnel being in the same room. That seems crazy.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
There is an issue in terms of carrying out assessments of need. Children who require assessments by psychologists tend to need an in-room assessment.
Directives for interaction with children have focused on remote interaction. Certain types of things cannot be carried out remotely. I am aware that the HSE is looking at other means to carry out those things. There is a delay for children going through the statutory assessment of needs process whereby it cannot be completed, either because all relevant therapists are unavailable due to redeployment or because the assessment itself required them to meet the child in person, which was proving problematic, particularly in the early months of Covid. Face-to-face engagement has started but is probably at a very low level, given that some staff have been redeployed. There are existing shortages and waiting lists we already know about, but all of that is being compounded by Covid and restrictions on interactions.
I will make just one final point because I think I am coming up to the end of my five minutes. Is Ms Dempsey saying it is her experience that NEPS psychologists have been redeployed or am I picking up-----
I thank those who are here representing the National Parents Council, Inclusion Ireland and others. We have had some of them here before, and some of the issues we discussed previously are obviously still very pertinent.
Communications appears to be a significant issue. I note from both surveys that were done there was dissatisfaction in most cases with communications, which were considered vague in the case of the Department and some of the public teaching groupings and schools. Have any of the groups thought about any ways in which this could be improved in the future? We all know we are in this together. Yes, there is a learning process, but is there an easier way of getting the required information out to families? Have the witnesses any thoughts or ideas about that?
Ms Áine Lynch:
The main thing about communication in schools is that the most effective communication is between the school and the family and the child. Parents do not necessarily engage with the Department of Education and Skills. It is through the medium of the school that they get the communication that is specific to their school. Members can see in our survey that many parents were very satisfied with the communication received, but some parents said there was a lack of two-way communication. Whereas they might have got information, they did not feel in some small instances that they had an opportunity to talk to the school about concerns they had or to express their difficulties with arrangements that were put in place. Where there is no such two-way communication, I think that can cause frustration that bubbles under the surface. As I said, in the survey many parents said this was working well in their school, but where it was not working well it did cause more anxiety.
I appreciate Ms Lynch's remarks. I also acknowledge that the schools, particularly the school management boards, have done excellent work trying to rise to all the challenges they have. Some of these challenges have come up before. I note that Inclusion Ireland's submission refers to the issue of children with disabilities who are in groupings or bubbles. It says that in the event of a coronavirus case such children will suffer even more unduly. It highlights that parents report having no access to supports such as the HSE therapies, services in schools, the visiting teacher service or NEPS services. We have spoken about NEPS services before. I did some informal work on this with local schools in Waterford and was appalled, to be frank, by the waiting times for the educational assessments and the fact that only a couple of assessments were being offered to individual schools each year. Do those witnesses who are engaging with the Department in this area see any daylight on this?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
I understand there has been an increase in the number of psychologists to be recruited for the National Educational Psychological Service. However, the Deputy is touching on an existing problem and an annual issue whereby schools are allocated a very small number of assessments for a particular child and, therefore, every year there are children who may require NEPS assessments but whose parents or guardians cannot get them prioritised for them. Sometimes they are referred to the HSE to try some way of getting a similar type of assessment done.
As such it is an existing problem insofar as the child is missing out on six months of school during which assessments may normally have been carried out and there may be a delay there to children. It is also important to note that the engagement with children who display additional needs in school in respect of their educational input should not be delayed by waiting on a NEPS assessment. As there is a whole-school model of allocating special educational teaching supports, they no longer need a particular diagnosis to access additional teaching supports; it should be there and upfront. However, in particular where children require a diagnosis for a particular type of support, there are still issues surrounding that, which the education system itself has to work through.
When it comes to providing psychological support to a school, I understand that NEPS has provided a lot of material to schools to provide generalised support to the whole school. The Deputy is bringing up a situation where an individual child requires direct support from NEPS. I believe that capacity is limited due to the overall number. Its model is to provide a whole-school broad-level support, rather that one-to-one support for individual children.
I wish to raise an issue I have brought up previously, which concerns private psychological reports that were not being taken on board by the HSE. Has Ms Dempsey spoken to the Department again about this issue? If schools are only allowed, in essence, to do a couple of evaluations a year, the conundrum is that some of those doing the evaluations for the schools are also in a position to do it privately but their private assessment is not taken on board. Has Ms Dempsey thought about trying to speak to the Department about that again?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
There is a scheme to commission private assessments. There is a panel of assessors whose reports would be accepted. Anecdotally, there have been stories in which the reports of certain psychologists might not be accepted by schools and the NCSE; that is a matter for professional bodies. Again, these sort of stories come around anecdotally that registered psychologists will provide a report and indeed a diagnosis and that may not be accepted for supports. The question as to why that has been the case between the HSE and other parties is really not for us to answer.
Ms Áine Lynch:
If I could come in there, as the issue of private assessment is an equity issue as well, it is about getting the education system to a point where it will not depend on whether parents can afford private assessments. What has happened in recent years, and Ms Dempsey has referred to this, is that getting resources is now not nearly as linked to assessment as it used to be. Schools are front-loaded with supports and children should be able to get those supports without an assessment from a psychologist. It is based on the teacher's assessment of the student's learning needs. We support the system going that way, rather than opening up the private assessment piece, whereby parents who can afford to get assessments do so and those who cannot do not. That would be an important factor in this regard.
In response to Ms Lynch, I have met a number of parents who have gone down the road of private assessment and I can tell her most assuredly that they could not afford it. They had to scrimp and save to put it together because essentially, they are trying to fast-track some resourcing for their children who are being left behind. It is not about people who can afford it. As Ms Lynch probably knows, the majority of these people cannot afford it. Everybody in the area needs to be lobbying for this, as it seems to be significant discrimination against these children.
On the home tuition scheme and the remote learning, can the witnesses provide an idea of the potential number of children and families who are affected?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
The home tuition scheme is different to the scheme that has been proposed for the continuity of education for children who are deemed to be very high risk. Under it they would still be on the roll of their base school. Currently, the only children that can apply for the home tuition scheme are those without a school placement and a significant number of children on the autistic spectrum fall into that category. Children who cannot attend school due to their own medical conditions and who historically have had huge gaps in their attendance at school are a separate category to those who are now identified as being at very high risk from Covid. There are also children who, for psychological or psychiatric reasons cannot engage in a school setting.
The existing home tuition scheme, even that for 2020-21, is still for the original cohort. Although it is something at which we want to look, it is not currently proposed to consider children who are at high risk or very high risk and who cannot come into the school settings, although they have a base school, for the level of access a child on the home tuition scheme receives, which may be anything from ten to 20 hours of teacher contact time every week of the school year rather than just informal remote learning packages. We would like consideration to be given to providing packages based on individual children's needs and home and family circumstances rather than saying a child is either over the line or in the home tuition scheme. To be clear, children who are considered very high risk as regards Covid will not be considered for the home tuition scheme. Children with medical needs who have already missed substantial parts of their schooling due to hospitalisations and so on can apply for the scheme. It is for those who have an existing issue with regard to school attendance.
I will outline one issue, although I will not ask a question about it. The Inclusion Ireland representatives said they are due to meet the Department again shortly. I have engaged widely with people on school transport. I ask the representatives to highlight to the Department that a number of people hold private contracts for school transport that have not been renewed. They are operating the services again but are waiting for the Department to give them new contracts, which is putting them in a very difficult position. Inclusion Ireland needs to bring that up with the Department. I will certainly also do so. It needs to be flagged. A great number of people in the private sector are running services at a loss based on their previous contract and the Government is not engaging with regard to giving them additional resources or revised contracts to allow them to operate profitably.
I welcome all of the delegations. I have a number of questions, the first of which I will direct to Inclusion Ireland. Its submission mentions that 87% of its clients have returned to their school settings or adult services. What proportion or percentage of its membership attends school and what proportion or percentage attends adult day services? Many Deputies will know of people who avail of adult day services. The situation has been very difficult for their families. Many of these people have not returned to their services. Some of those who have returned are only attending for one day a week whereas they may have attended for four and a half or five days last year. Will the representatives of Inclusion Ireland comment on the situation for people attending adult services?
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
I will answer very quickly. The 87% relates to schools. Slightly over 9% are returning to school on a staggered basis. They will attend school for a number of days and avail of remote learning for a number of days for the first few weeks. A further 3% or 4% will avail of remote learning only. We suspect that these are mainly people with high medical needs. I know the topic of today's meeting is not day services but, as we understand it, the vast majority of adult day services will have returned by the end of this week, albeit not on a full-time basis. Anecdotally, we are hearing that people are getting anything from two to three days a week. That is probably an issue for a different Minister but these services have not received the same funding as schools with regard to reopening.
I thank Mr. O'Connor for that comment. I again wish to express the difficulties those people are having. Each child or adult's case is specific to his or her family. I hope they can return to some kind of normality in the weeks ahead.
My second question relates to school transport. I am interested in hearing from the parents' groups. There are a number of villages in my constituency in which children are currently without a bus service. Watergrasshill, where 46 children are without a service, is one such village. There are a further 13 children in Glenville and a half a dozen in Carrignavar. In Whitechurch, near Blarney, another 14 children are without a bus service since yesterday.
I noted that, in response to our guests' surveys, many people have expressed satisfaction with the return to school and have been fairly complimentary, albeit there has been some criticism of the school transport system. I wonder what the interactions between members of the National Parents Council and CIÉ or Bus Éireann have been like. Will they make a comment on the overall issue of school transport?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
School transport is an issue at the start of every school year. The biggest issue this year, apart from the major problems that Covid-19 has caused, has been the change from 100% to 50% capacity on transport. That only happened relatively recently. It is our understanding that the transport services are still working through that and trying to put buses in place in areas that are without them. The issue of transporting children to school is an integral part of education and school life, as we have identified a number of times, and must be treated as such. The commitment has been given that a parent who cannot avail of the public school transport system for whatever reason will be facilitated and repaid for any costs incurred in getting children to school. That is fine, but we have highlighted that quite a considerable number of those who fall into that bracket are particularly vulnerable families who may not have the wherewithal to afford those costs upfront. That needs to be addressed quickly. We are hopeful that it will be addressed quickly in light of the speed with which some other matters are addressed. It is an integral part of going back to school.
I will ask a final question about July provision. As our guests are well aware, there was a specific scheme this year and a lot of extra resources went into serving people with special needs and accommodating them during the lockdown period. What were our guests' experiences of July provision this year and where would they like to see improvements or additional funding next year, given that these provisions are targeted at our most vulnerable children?
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
At the start of the process, the messaging from the Department around who would qualify for the summer programmes was quite mixed but it eventually settled down. The feedback we have received is to the effect that it has been a very positive programme for those who experienced it. As an advocacy organisation, we often hear only the bad stories because people tend not to ring us up and tell us about wonderful things that have happened. The silence on this matter is a case of no news being good news and any anecdotal reports we have heard have described quite successful summer provision experiences.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
What ran this summer was not actually the July provision scheme but was called a summer programme. This was because the July provision scheme involves adherence to a separate set of restrictive criteria. Thousands of children who would not normally qualify for July provision finally got the opportunity of an extended school year this summer. In interactions with the Department and the Minister, we will be looking for that broader model of support for children with all types of disabilities to be extended to the summer of 2021. It would not only apply to the extended school year for post-primary students. It would be appropriate to have that educational input but there is also a need for social and psychological supports and the ability to provide students with a programme that is educational, social and sporting over the summer period whereby students are not just restricted to having access to a teacher but also to an SNA where that is more appropriate. We should aim to give parents that choice again. As Mr. O'Connor said, silence suggests success. The easing back into school has been a substantial success for those children who availed of the summer programme because they had already seen what their schools look like, the staff involved and the layout of the classrooms. They were afforded that familiarity because they got in the door much earlier than others.
We were always looking for an extension of the July provision scheme but what we saw was a summer programme, albeit that it had issues around communication at the beginning, and it certainly is the way forward. That is what we will look to do for summer 2021.
I wish to revert to the assessment of need and other issues. Previous speakers spoke about the complications presented by Covid, but it is my experience that this issue was prevalent long before the arrival of Covid. I have a letter I received from the HSE on 13 July this year concerning a constituent of mine. The case concerns a ten-year old boy who was referred to the child development team of the HSE in February 2016 by Enable Ireland. He received a diagnosis of developmental co-ordination disorder from Enable Therapy Services in August 2017. This young boy needs support from the child development team psychotherapy services. The case dates back to 2016. The information I received in July is that the current waiting time for psychotherapy intervention is extensive but the service would make contact with the family as soon as an appointment becomes available. You can imagine, Chairman, if you were the parent of that child and that is the clarification you received about a child who needed support from 2016.
This child also needs support from the occupational therapy service. Again, there is an acknowledgement that the child was referred to the child development team in 2016 and that he is currently on the occupational therapy waiting list for intervention. No date has been given, but there is an indication that there may be an appointment within the next three months. The child also needs to meet the psychology services staff. That goes back to September 2015 when a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder was made. Since that time he has been on the waiting list for psychological services. He received the psychology input from the primary care team and received a psychology appointment with the child development team in 2017. He was then placed on a high-priority waiting list for individual psychological work but he is still waiting.
That is a scandalous legacy issue pertaining to a child with special needs and I know of countless other cases. My question is directed in particular to the representatives of Inclusion Ireland. Is that type of scenario particular to my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan or is it generally prevalent and is there any indication of exactly how many children are in that position? How many families are going through the traumatic ordeal of knowing that their child needs supports and is not able to get them?
I should make the point that this is the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. The sectoral committees will hopefully be up and running soon. I will not prevent Inclusion Ireland in any way from answering the question-----
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Deputy Carthy felt that was the inference. What I said is that Covid has compounded the issue of waiting lists. It was not inferred that it was a result of Covid; it is a long-standing problem. I have been before a couple of committees down through the years reiterating the issue of waiting lists for children. Covid has certainly compounded those waiting lists and they are only going in a negative direction currently.
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
The most recent performance management report from the HSE dates to September 2019. Approximately 10% of the assessment of needs were completed within the statutory timeframe. I believe in or around 5,000 individuals were not seen within the statutory timeframe. According to the report, the number of young people on waiting lists for in excess of 12 months for the various therapies the Deputy mentioned varies between 1,000 and 2,000.
I do not imagine that those waiting lists got any better. I imagine that one could just tack six months on. As we understand it, those therapy services have been significantly restricted due the obvious inability to hold face-to-face therapeutic sessions.
I have a question for the National Parents Council Post Primary. Have its members who have been told to isolate their children for Covid-related reasons received the support they need in order for their children to be educated? At the peak of the pandemic, I was contacted by many second year and fifth year students worried about how they would catch up this year. Is the ground that was lost being made up in an adequate manner?
I know there has been an increase in the number of guidance counsellors. Is there sufficient access to guidance counsellors in schools?
Ms Mai Fanning:
An allocation of 120 posts was made, but it was not stipulated that those posts would be restricted to just counsellors and not be given to the whole school guidance. We would favour those 120 posts being for guidance counsellors only. We have only just started getting our schools open. As we go through, the importance of professional guidance counsellors within the school system particularly at second level will become increasingly clear.
We are back to home tuition and home learning. That is totally dependent on the schools. It has not been made clear, either by schools or the Department, what facilities will be there for children who would need to remove themselves from school for a particular reason. I revert to those children who are classed as being either risk or high-risk. A child who is not classed as high-risk but just risk may have a high-risk person at home and may not be in a position to go to school. We need clarification on home-schooling and remote learning for those children.
If an issue arises in a school, the guidance counsellors will need to be there in order to not only offer academic support and guidance to the children but also the psychological supports that will be needed. In dealing with anything that breaks out in the schools, we have to ensure that everything is done in a calm and cohesive manner to avoid putting excess anxiety on the children and their families. That will only come if there is good communication, a matter to which all of the groups have alluded. It must work both ways and not just come from the Department to schools and parents. Parental concerns must be fed back so that they can be addressed by the schools and the Department.
It is a very big concern that the guidance counsellors are not actually in the schools particularly now during the Covid pandemic.
I have a question for the National Parents Council Primary. Are its members asking about supports to deal with an increased level of anxiety among their children? Are they finding children this year much more anxious than would normally be the case? Parents coming to my office have indicated that their children are more anxious and nervous. Has the National Parents Council Primary discussed supports for primary schoolchildren who may be anxious particularly if they are high-risk or have underlying conditions?
When the capacity of school buses was reduced to 50% and parents were told that if they drove their children to school they could seek a refund, was the matter discussed with the National Parents Council Primary? How does the council see that working? Is there a timeline involved? How do people apply for the refund?
Many people who have come to my office do not have a car and depend on bus services. They cannot afford taxis. On what programme did the National Parents Council Post Primary work with the Department? Was it at the talks? While it is good that there is an incentive in place to drive secondary school children to school, the family must have a car to avail of it. How much will families be paid as a refund?
Ms Áine Lynch:
Children's anxiety was one of the issues on which we asked questions in our survey. We asked parents to rate on a scale of one to five how anxious their children were about going back to school, extending from "not anxious at all" to "very worried". Some 7% of parents indicated their children were very worried about going back to school. We did not ask if this was specifically due to Covid-19. Typically in any year, there would be children who are worried about going back to school due to bullying and other issues related to going to school.
The supports put in place to date by NEPS and the Department are comprehensive and allow for a whole school approach and also a more individualised approach for children and families who might be experiencing more difficulties. Time will tell, however, as these are early days. Some children have only just gone back to school or today might be their first day back. In a couple of weeks, we will need to find out at what level these anxieties are. We will need to find out whether anxieties have decreased as children have gone back to school and whether things are going well and children have settled in. Time is important here. We do not want to leave this for too long but we need to see how well children and families are settling back in.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Regarding school transport, for any parents who do not know how to access the scheme, the conditions, including the rates, are set out on the Department's website. The National Parents Council Post Primary reiterated on two occasions that people are paid after the fact. Parents who do not have a car should contact the Department directly. There is a specific email for parents who have difficulty providing transport for their children.
Those who have a car are expected to drop everything. The parent may not be going to the school down the road. We have this issue regarding children with disabilities all the time. It is an annual event. The parents are paid after the fact. They apply for funding and are paid a couple of months later. Again, it is down to a person's socioeconomic status. If a parent cannot afford to put petrol in his or her car, that is a challenge, even though parents typically have a car. As far as I am aware, any parent in that position can contact the Department directly using a specific email address on the Department's webpage on the school transport scheme.
Has Ms Dempsey come across cases of parents who do not have transport using taxis to get children to school? I am working on a few cases in the disability sector where bus services have been cut and some of the affected families do not have a car. This is becoming a big issue because these families must use a taxi, which they cannot afford. Are the Department and the NPCPP trying to come up with some sort of a solution? We must make sure that, as Ms Dempsey said, children or adults with a disability, who are the most vulnerable, get to school or the workplace. I do not know if there is a proper roadmap in place for that. We need to see that.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
If the child is attending a special class or special school, the parent will not bear any economic pressure. Some children are always transported in taxis in lieu of a minibus or larger bus. It is really in cases of children who are attending mainstream schools and children without disabilities that the affordability of a taxi is called into question. If a child is in a special class or special school, a payment is not required on the part of the parent. The Department will pay the taxi provider directly.
I am dealing with a case where a child with a disability who had a place on a bus last year cannot get a place this year. As Ms Dempsey said, that service should be free. It seems there are one or two cases slipping through the net this year.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
That may be the concessionary programme where the children were only given a space because there was space available on the special school transport. That is an ongoing issue which is not directly related to Covid. These children are only given a space on an annual basis where there is a space on the special school transport route in question. However, should another child qualify, he or she would be allocated that space first which leaves the other child out in the open, as it were. This only happens where there is a disagreement on whether the child is in the appropriate special school that is nearest to his or her school or home.
Where a parent does not want to send a child to the particular special school or special class that is nearest to them, the Department will not fund that. It will fund it only on a concessionary basis. Where there is an agreement that it is the most appropriate school for the child, it will not have concessionary funding as the child will be on the school transport scheme. It is a nuanced scheme but every year there are a handful of cases where difficulty arises in that the place is taken up by a child who qualifies and those who had a concessionary place are left without special school transport.
I spoke earlier to a representative of SNAs and asked him what his members were encountering. He spoke of a sense of relief because there had been a sense of isolation for many children, particularly those with special needs, during the lockdown and the following period of absence from school. Ms Dempsey also spoke of a similar feeling of isolation and abandonment that parents had. Would she share that sense of relief that the schools are open and children are now back in schools?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
The relief is going to be felt only by those parents whose children are back in schools. We have spoken several times about children who simply will not be able to return to school. For parents who now have to face issues with their own employment if they have employment contracts, their only option now is to stay at home permanently. There is a significant economic cost to such a family where it is left with these types of decisions to make.
The isolation will continue. We all know about the reductions in other supports outside of education, such as home support, access to respite and all the other features that might originally have supported the family of a child with disabilities. There will still be fundamental issues with the provision of all those other measures. For families where the children cannot go back to school because of their complex disabilities and medical needs, that isolation will continue, and we need to look at how we can prioritise those families, whether for primary care or disability services or supports, and ensure they will not remain isolated in their own homes.
Everyone is talking about the word "cocooning", but there are families with children who will be required to cocoon continuously until such time as we are on top of Covid and vaccination programmes have been rolled out. If such families' children are not able to go back to school, there has to be something for them in order that this isolation, which I have described to the committee in recent months, will not just continue. Now we know about it - we have voiced it and documented it - and we know there will be a cohort for whom that isolation will continue unless we find other means to ensure that their family units are supported. I refer in particular to siblings included in a new cocoon, given that they are unable to go back to school because the family and medical teams deem that the risk is so high for that one family member that the whole family must withdraw from society, although society does not need to withdraw from the whole family.
On the point about society withdrawing from the whole family, there has recently been talk of new lockdowns and, on the part of some, there has almost been a celebration that lockdowns work. Others, of course, say they manifestly do not work and that, at the very best, they press pause. How does Ms Dempsey think those families she described would feel about new lockdowns, whether localised ones that affect them or national ones?
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
If someone is already isolated, whether his or her area is locked down or not makes little difference. This is an ongoing experience for some families, which existed even prior to Covid. Some people have said that while family carers are not talked about enough, at least now, for once, other people in society are experiencing the same issues that families and people with disabilities face all the time, such as in regard to access to public services, education or employment. Everybody else in the country is now feeling what can often be a normal experience for the cohort of individuals that Inclusion Ireland represents, whether they are in lockdown or otherwise, even if lockdown might make it more difficult.
There were great community efforts over the past six months. The worry is that those kinds of supports, as the country has opened up, are now few and far between. As for the feeling that we are all in this together, some people will not see that because they will not get the opportunity to experience it.
Regardless of whether supports are provided by the State, a voluntary organisation or a local authority, we need to remember that a cohort of people will be locked down in their homes for a substantial period. We talked about education and we must ensure there is educational provision that is robust. We must also ensure that surveys carried out six months from now do not make the same kinds of findings that we found in our surveys in May, which showed that remote learning was not working for some children. We reiterate that every child under the age of 18 has a statutory right to an education and we need to find some mechanism to fulfil that right for all the children in the various scenarios we know about as well as those that might be unforeseen.
I thank Ms Dempsey and all our witnesses for attending, answering our questions and presenting so eloquently. I will suspend the meeting until 4.30 p.m. as I am told there are to be votes in the Convention Centre.