Thursday, 1 July 2021
Department of Education and Skills
79. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills further to Parliamentary Question No. 156 of 13 May 2021, the engagement she has had in the 2020-2021 academic year with representatives of DEIS schools who, while the schools were closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, incurred considerable costs due to the necessity to regularly post hard-copy educational materials to students who had little or no access to online learning; the analysis her Department has carried out to-date into providing compensation to these schools for the posts costs incurred; the plans that are in place to prevent similar costs being borne by schools, in the case of any future school closures; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35290/21]
Since the onset of Covid19 and throughout the 2020/21 school year, my Department has continued to engage with education partners, which includes school management representative bodies, and principal and teacher representative bodies, and the national parent councils (primary and post primary). The purpose of this engagement is to ensure that all schools, including DEIS schools, are supported through periods of remote learning and also now as schools have reopened and learners have returned to the classroom.
The Department's Inspectorate also carried out telephone surveys of principals in the September to December 2020 period (return to school) and in the January-February period when schools were closed. Engagement with schools revealed that, in some instances, schools provided hard copy materials to students, initially where those students had no means of accessing online learning, where internet connectivity was particularly poor or where some students with additional needs found it difficult to engage in online learning. The subject of associated costs was not explored.
My Department will spend over €150million on supports for schools under the DEIS programme in 2021. Included in this, is funding in the region of €16.2 million which is provided to schools in the form of a DEIS grant. In response to the difficulties faced by some students to engage with remote learning, my Department issued the DEIS Grant for the 2020/21 school year earlier than scheduled, ensuring schools had funding to support their vulnerable learners. At the time the grant issued last year all DEIS schools were informed by letter that they could consider using some of their DEIS funding to support pupils’ learning, for example to arrange access to additional materials of supports for students during the move to remote teaching and learning caused by Covid-19. This grant has already issued to schools in respect of the 2021/22 school year.
When schools were closed, where the nature of costs which would normally have been incurred when schools were open changed, it was a matter for schools to use the resources available to the school including the DEIS grant funding allocated to support students in DEIS schools, in accordance with the needs of the school and to support the objectives of the DEIS programme, including retention, attendance, literacy and numeracy.
My Department provides capitation funding to all recognised schools in the free education scheme. The capitation grant caters for day to day running costs of the school including postage costs. I am pleased to say that budget 2020 was able to provide for a further 2.5% increase in standard capitation funding for primary schools that applied from the start of the 2020/21 school year. This builds on the 5% increase in capitation announced in budget 2019. All schools have received the benefit of the capitation increases awarded to date.
In relation to supporting the connectivity of schools and learners, as part of the €210m investment programme underpinning the implementation of the Digital Strategy for Schools, my Department provided €100m in grant funding to schools to address their ICT needs during 2020. Schools were advised that they can use this funding to support the continuity of teaching and learning should a period of partial or full school closure occur arising from Public Health advice owing to Covid-19 restrictions. This can include the purchase of ICT devices including laptops, etc, that can be shared with students and teachers who do not have access to devices, essential learning platforms and other ICT infrastructure to support the provision of remote learning.
In an effort to support students and families a process to zero rate educational websites was put in place during the first lockdown, as announced by the then Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications. I am advised that the zero rating has been maintained by a number of telecoms providers and also that there is a range of unlimited mobile data packages on offer by the market.