Thursday, 16 December 2021
I am pleased to be here today with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to provide the House with an update on the important measures that we have taken to address the continuing the impact of Covid-19 on the educational experience of our children and young people.
The operation of schools has been and continues to be a key priority for the Government. I do not underestimate for a moment the significant challenge that the pandemic has presented for schools in their operation and in their everyday running.
I sincerely acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all education partners, working together with the Department of Education and public health, to ensure that our schools have been in a position to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I also acknowledge the work of public health, whose support has been critical in these efforts.
As Members will be aware, the operation of schools is vital for our children and young people. From social development, to academic learning, to well-being, school is a crucial service for them. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is the vital importance of our education system. Significant resources have been made available to schools throughout the pandemic to support them in their continued operation. However, the education system is not defined by Covid-19. Budget 2022 includes a number of investments in our education system that will create a stronger, brighter future for our learners. We have further reduced the primary staffing schedule from the present historic low of 25:1 to 24:1 from September 2022 onwards. The primary staffing schedule reduced by one point, to an historic low level of 25:1, in 2021 and further investment in new teaching posts will see the general average reduced to 24:1 in 2022. We have provided an additional annual allocation to the DEIS programme of €18 million in 2022, growing to €23 million the following year. Together with a further one point improvement in the staffing schedule for DEIS urban band 1 schools, this will create the largest ever education package to tackle educational disadvantage and represents an increase of more than 20% in funding for the DEIS programme in 2022 and 2023.
The budget for 2022 includes a capital allocation of €20 million to schools for the purchase of books, audiobooks and other media for the purposes of improving their existing literacy resource banks. This funding is additional to that given for the school book rental scheme and is intended to promote the joy of literature, words and reading within our schools and classrooms. The budget also seeks to support our excellent school leaders by extending administrative principal status to all teaching principals in schools with two or more special classes, or in special schools where a principal was previously a teaching principal. Furthermore, provision has been made for a minimum of one day of administrative leave per week for teaching principals. I look forward to advancing these initiatives, together with our partners in education.
The Department has always been guided by advice from our public health authorities, including NPHET and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, in respect of the infection prevention and control measures appropriate for schools. We are appreciative of the priority and guidance these expert bodies have provided to the education sector throughout the pandemic and we continue to engage with them where further measures are recommended or needed. The wearing of face masks by children aged nine years and older in a number of settings, including for children in third class and above in primary schools, has now been introduced on a temporary basis and will be subject to review in mid-February 2022. A set of frequently asked questions relating to face masks and face coverings in primary schools was published online and sent directly to primary schools. The FAQs provide further guidance to schools regarding the use of face masks or face coverings in the third to sixth class cohort. Advice from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, on supporting children in wearing face coverings in primary schools was also published online and forwarded to schools. Further resources have also been published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA.
As I have set out previously, any engagement between parents and schools will take place in a spirit of partnership and co-operation to ensure the safety of the whole school community. The guidance seeks a solution-focused approach between schools and parents to resolve any issues that may arise. Where significant issues have not been resolved locally, contact should be made with the Department’s Covid-19 support helpline by email or telephone and a departmental inspector will provide further support. The guidance recognises that in the case of certain children with additional needs, schools may be already aware of difficulties they may face regarding the appropriate use of face coverings. Schools will be best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face coverings may not be possible for them, and to discuss this with parents and guardians as required. In such circumstances, schools do not require medical certification to provide an exemption to the wearing of face coverings.
The Chief Medical Officer recently confirmed that it is his view that there is a role for the use of antigen tests as an additional tool in our schools. The Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, have introduced a programme where antigen tests will be made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises. Parents and guardians of a primary schoolchild with a confirmed case of Covid-19 following a PCR test are asked to inform their school’s principal. The school principal will then inform the parents of other children in the pod of a confirmed case. Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod within a seven-day period, antigen testing is being made available to every child in the class.
It is important that parents inform principals quickly if a child receives a "detected" PCR test for Covid-19. By doing this, the choice to participate in antigen testing can be offered to other parents quickly. It is important that everyone continues to follow all the public health advice in using this new programme. No personal details of the child will be shared. These parents will be provided with the option to receive free antigen tests for their child, which they will be able to order using a freephone number or online portal for delivery to their home. It is not mandatory for children to participate in antigen testing. Children who are in a pod where a child has tested positive for Covid-19 can continue to attend school whether they participate in antigen testing. School principals will not be required to gather evidence of participation or of any antigen test results. Information materials for parents has been shared with schools and publicised directly to parents.
While Covid-19 has had an effect on all aspects of education, it is clear that some students have been impacted more than others, especially students with additional educational needs and those who are at risk of educational disadvantage. The Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, was introduced to mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on learning loss and well-being arising from the periods of school closures in 2020 and 2021. Under the programme, a block of additional teaching hours is being provided to schools, from which each school can provide additional teaching support for the pupils who have experienced difficulties in settling back into school and engaging with learning. These hours are additional to any other teaching hours allocated to the school, such as special education teacher or English as an additional language hours. Schools have the flexibility to identify the pupils who have been most affected by the school closures, and schools can use these additional hours throughout the year to support these students. It is a matter for each school to recruit the teachers required to provide the hours or, alternatively, a school can offer additional teaching hours to teachers already in the school who have less than full teaching contracts. Any registered teacher may be recruited to provide CLASS hours, irrespective of whether the teacher is otherwise employed by the school.
Ventilation is one part of a layered strategy of protective measures to control the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices was provided in early May. The guidance outlines that CO2 monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas and rooms may not be adequately ventilated. As such, a number of portable CO2 monitors were sent directly to primary and secondary schools as part of a free scheme. In excess of 36,000 monitors have been provided. To assist schools with this work, the Department recently announced the payment of a minor works grant totalling €45 million for primary schools and special schools as part of additional support in the context of Covid-19, and €17 million was allocated for post-primary schools. Schools that identify inadequate ventilation in a room can use their minor works grant, including for the purchase of HEPA air cleaners where identified as necessary. Schools may also apply for emergency works grant assistance to address larger-scale issues, as has always been the procedure.
Well-being is a central focus of schools and the Department. Specific supports have been put in place for schools to allow for well-being measures.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to address the House. I am very appreciative of the tremendous support that has been given by all our partners in education and the school communities on the ground, as well as Deputies, in what has been a particularly unprecedented time in the education sector. I am appreciative of their support and I wish them a happy Christmas.