Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

10:30 am

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. To get to the nub of the point I want to make, teachers and parents have made huge sacrifices in the classroom and at home in dealing with the new reality and the new era of Covid.I want to speak about what happens in the event of a level 5 situation. I accept that there is a firm commitment for schools to remain open, even in a level 5 situation. The continuation of education is important no matter the cost.

The purpose of this Commencement matter is to ascertain the Department's contingency plans in two scenarios. The first scenario is a severe outbreak, for example, a Covid hotspot in a school. The second scenario, God forbid, is our surpassing a level 5 situation. How does primary school education continue in that situation? I want to know what the Department has been doing in terms of contingency planning for such scenarios, including its engagement with teachers and the various stakeholders. In a worst case scenario, where education in a school cannot continue due to a Covid outbreak, we may have to consider the use of technology, as is happening in the third level sector and is working extremely well. I accept that it is difficult to compare university students to primary school students. I accept that there are broadband and child protection issues and that not every family has access to ICT devices.

I am seeking information today on how the Department plans to facilitate the continuation of education in a worst case scenario and for reassurance in that regard from Government for teachers and, in particular, parents who are fearful of a more severe outbreak. We have no any idea what the future holds. We need a national protocol, which would provide that teachers would have to check in with students once a day online for, say, an hour or two hours. I know that the Department has provided substantial extra funding in terms of ICT for families and schools. I accept that online learning is nowhere near as beneficial as classroom learning. I spoke to a teacher this morning who told me that one hour in a classroom setting is worth a week of online learning. I agree with that. My colleague, Senator Buttimer, with his vast experience in this area, will be a testament to that.

We need to put in place additional measures to make sure that teachers are teaching in a safe and secure environment and to reassure parents that they are sending their children into a safe and secure environment. We do this in three ways. First, we prioritise testing in schools at all cost. Second, we prioritise contact tracing and, third, we put in place a dedicated helpline for school principals through which they can access advice on the standard HSE guidelines. If we can do that, we can make schools a safer place for students and staff alike. The purpose of this is to ensure we do not reach the situation we reached in March which resulted in children at home for months on end, receiving varying levels of education because of different types of teaching or school curriculums. We need a national protocol that will provide clarity for teachers and parents around how the education of children will continue in a worst case scenario.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator McGahon for raising this important issue. It has been a collective effort across the system that has enabled schools to reopen at the start of the school year. I acknowledge the leadership shown by principals, deputy principals and management of schools and the degree to which teachers have prepared for and adapted their practice. In addition, I acknowledge the efforts of the wider school community in supporting the reopening of schools, including those of special needs assistants, secretaries, caretakers, parents and, of course, the pupils and students.

It remains the Government's key objective for schools to remain open and to continue to operate as normally as possible. However, I recognise that despite the best efforts of all stakeholders, there will be situations where individual pupils or groups of pupils, teachers, or possibly entire school communities are requested by public health-HSE to self-isolate or restrict their movements because of a case or cases of Covid-19. There is an absolute necessity for schools to be prepared for these situations, for them to continue to support their pupils, and to provide for continuity of teaching and learning. This is particularly important in the context of pupils at risk of early school leaving, pupils with special educational needs and pupils at risk of educational disadvantage. Schools need to be agile in providing for continuity of schooling in the future. Contingency planning is required for supporting the continuity of pupils' learning with the use of digital technology where possible. It is important that these plans should be based on a whole-school approach and that the plans should be reviewed and adapted over the coming weeks and months as the situation evolves and as the experience of schools increases in these matters.

Extensive guidance and supports have been and continue to be made available by the Department of Education and Skills and its support services to support schools to plan for the transition to online and remote learning, and this guidance is available at .The guidance includes links to a range of materials and supports developed by the digital technologies team of the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, such as learning platforms and online tools which can be used to support remote or distance teaching and learning. Those resources continue to be available to schools. In addition, the Department has issued ICT grant funding to schools to address ICT needs, including digital devices, communication learning platforms, software and other ICT solutions to support the provision of remote learning. I confirm to Senator McGahon that additional grant aid will issue during the current school year subject to the availability of Exchequer funding.

The Department's inspectorate is supporting school communities to provide effectively for the learning and progression of all learners during the first term of the 2020-2021 school year. The situation we find ourselves in is evolving all the time. The Department, working with the whole of government, will keep the situation under review and update any advices to schools as required. It is with the work of all our stakeholders together that we will continue to provide the best education for all our pupils. Guidance has already issued from the Department that provides advice to assist schools in planning for contingency situations where teaching and learning can be delivered remotely for pupils who cannot attend schools for reasons related to Covid-19. The Department has also provided extensive guidance to support the well-being of pupils. To support schools further, I can confirm that the Department is planning to publish in the coming days a set of guidelines on how schools should plan for and support the learning of individual pupils or groups of pupils who may have to self-isolate or restrict their movements during the 2020-2021 school year.

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the very substantial response. The most important part of it is the last couple of sentences in which he confirmed guidelines will be published in the next couple of days or within the next week on how the continuation of education will happen. It is important that that guidance is published as soon as possible.

We acknowledge that schools need to be agile in an ever-evolving situation. We allow schools to be agile by providing them with as much information as soon as possible so they can make informed decisions about what may or may not happen down the line.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his comments. He is correct that the school authorities, teachers, pupils and all of the staff have done great work in the context of Covid-19 and getting 1 million pupils back into school. It is a great achievement. As the Senator said, we are in an evolving situation and we have to continue to issue guidance.