Thursday, 30 July 2020
Opening of Schools and Calculated Grades: Statements
I appreciate the Minister being here. It feels as if we are in the worst nightclub ever, spending this time together.
Perhaps there should be some type of mechanism for us to interact over the month of August. I appreciate that we cannot recall the Dáil but we should find an imaginative way for Opposition Deputies and the Minister or her officials to engage in the weeks before the reopening because this issue is so important. I strongly hope that this plan works. We all need it to work and we need the Minister to be successful. I strongly believe we could work with the Minister in whatever way we can over the next number of weeks to ensure it is successful.
I have a question about masks. Many schools are concerned about what type of protocols will be issued from the Department regarding the wearing of masks, particularly at second level and in respect of students who are vulnerable and have special educational needs. I have in mind children with cochlear implants who have concerns about how they might wear a mask. We need some guidelines on that.
The issue of special education teachers being used as substitutes is crucial. I was a resource teacher for a period of time. It was difficult if my work was interrupted by going into a class to substitute for that class. Not only was my work disrupted but obviously the child who needed the attention was disadvantaged as well. That is something that needs to change. We have spoken about the lack of time. We cannot blame the Minister for that as she has only been in the office for less than a month, but obviously this package would have been required a number of months ago. However, we are where we are, as they say.
On school transport, we probably need a few more days to allow parents to engage with the system. The Minister has delayed it to 4 August, but it probably needs to be delayed for a few more days. Can she speak on that?
Regarding the issue of calculated grades, in fairness to the Minister, as part of the discussion this evening, she did arrange for a briefing with Opposition spokespeople on this yesterday and it was very informative. If calculated grades are going to be used as a mechanism for the leaving certificate in 2021 - I know the Minister will not want to make an announcement on this now or admit defeat on it at all - junior certificate and leaving certificate students of 2021 will need an early decision on that. If that decision is going to be made, it needs to be flagged well in advance because, as the Minister knows, students will have been out of the system for a number of months. Their potential for maximising whatever grades they could have got in the junior certificate or leaving certificate will be greatly impacted by that loss, so there will have to be some way the Department can look into that. If it means there will be some level of assessed grades, can an early decision on that be made?
The Minister has plenty of time to respond to my last point. It has come to my notice that there are third level institutions that have internal documents circulating within them suggesting that only one day's attendance per week will be necessary for students when they come back in September. As the Department with responsibility for higher education is not legally constituted, I still must deal with the Minister for Education and Skills on this issue. If third level institutions are circulating such documents, is she aware of such conversations taking place within third level institutions? If this is the case, how can we stand over the maintenance of the student contribution at its current level if students will get only one day per week of in-class tuition? Further, why should we expect students to seek accommodation for themselves in the middle of a housing crisis if the in-class tuition they are expected to receive in September will be one day per week?
To summarise my points, I seek greater clarification on masks and mask wearing; on special educational teachers being used as substitutes; and on school transport and how long parents have to apply for it. Obviously, a lot of school transport providers are still unsure as to what they can do. I want a straight answer because, unfortunately, I asked the Minister a straight question a number of weeks ago in this Chamber and did not get a straight answer, and then there was a press release a couple of hours later. I am asking her about this situation in third level institutions. Is she aware of third level colleges that within their internal conversations are suggesting there will be only one day per week in class or physical teaching, if I might put it that way? If that is the case, and if she is aware of this, does the Minister think it is appropriate that the student contribution should remain at the same level? Does she think it is appropriate that students would be under such pressure to try to obtain student accommodation for themselves, given that they will be in class only once a week?