Thursday, 18 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Deputy. Parents and students asked for clarity, choice and some compassion, and that is what we have provided in making the decision yesterday. A decision from the Government gives students the choice to opt for either a calculated grade or an accredited grade, or to sit the traditional examinations, which include written, oral, aural and practical examinations. They can make their choice subject by subject and they can also choose both options, taking whichever grade is highest.
On school reopening, NPHET has been consulted. It has given us informal advice on what school reopening could look like. It has advised that we should adopt a very gradual approach and that we should not have all 1 million pupils going back on the same day. The advice is that reopening should be done on a gradual basis, perhaps starting with leaving certificate students, because they need to prepare for their examinations, and also the youngest pupils, who are considered to present the lowest risk. These include pupils in junior and senior infants and first class, for example. After reopening, the situation would be assessed for a few weeks to determine whether there is an increase in cases of transmission, for example, and further reopening for more groups and years would occur only thereafter. That is the plan. That is the approach that NPHET has advised us is most appropriate. This will be discussed again this evening by the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid.
The Deputy asked me the very fair question as to whether we can give a guarantee and certainty. If we have learned anything from the pandemic in the past year, it is that nobody can give a guarantee or offer absolute certainty. We are seeing case numbers coming going down but they are still quite high. There are still 500, 600 or 700 per day. Schools were fully open at those levels back in September and October but we now have the B117 variant, which is much more transmissible. We just cannot say for sure what impact it will have as schools reopen on a phased basis throughout March and April. When schools reopened in September, we did not see a significant increase in cases. We know from other countries that they have managed to keep their schools open or bring pupils back but it would not be responsible for me to use the words "certainty" and "guarantee". That is why the advice from our scientists and public health doctors is not to bring back pupils all at the same time but to do so gradually, with some years going back first, followed by an assessment after two or three weeks. It is only then that the green light would be given for more classes or years to go back.