School just one day a week after the summer? Joe McHugh has got to be kidding

Parents know ‘blended learning’ is no substitute for a real education. It sells us all short

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has said that children returning to work for two or three days a week in September is "not a runner". Video: RTÉ

 

The Covid-19 radio ad was playing in the background when the six-year-old gave a deep sigh. “Coronavirus doesn’t just kill people,” she said. “It makes them sad too.”

She went off and painted a picture of her pet cat attacking Covid-19, a black streak with sharp claws pouncing on a green spiky ball against a bright-blue sky.

The kids are not all right. Children like my daughter – too old to be oblivious, too young to contextualise the threat or to understand why she can’t see her teacher and her schoolfriends – are not all right. Children with special needs whose wellbeing relies on the routine of school are certainly not all right. Vulnerable children, for whom school was a respite from difficult home situations, are not all right.

Parents supervising children while they work their way through a list of homework assigned by the teacher, frequently while they also try to work themselves, is not ‘blended learning’

Parents struggling to work remotely while overseeing their children’s homework are not all right. Single parents who are trying to do it all by themselves are not all right. Parents who are splitting the day into four-hour shifts, starting at 6am, so they can take turns to look after the children are not all right. Parents coming to terms with the reality that they will have to give up work in June or September are not all right.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh should bear this in mind when he makes pronouncements like the one he made on Friday afternoon. He said at a press conference that children might only be able to get back to school one day a week in September.

With 2m social distancing, children at some primary schools could attend only once a week, he said. Secondary students could go to school twice a week. The Cabinet had approved a report that said if the distance were reduced to 1m, primary pupils could go in 2½ days a week. Some postprimary students could attend almost full time. The rest of the time, blended learning would take place. It was his preference to have a full reopening, he said.

It would be beyond repugnant if children’s education and wellbeing were being used as a tool to exert pressure on NPHET, the National Public Health Emergency Team, to reduce social distancing from 2m to 1m, so let’s assume that’s not what’s happening here. Let’s accept that this is a straightforward reflection of the Government’s view of the best- and worst-case scenarios for what will happen in September and beyond, until a vaccine for Covid-19 is found.

If this is the spectre we’re facing, we need to call it what it is. Part-time schooling is not “blended learning”. Parents supervising children while they work their way through a list of homework assigned by the teacher, frequently while they also try to work themselves, is not “blended learning”. “Blended learning” is civil-servant newspeak with no bearing on the reality of what has been happening since March.

Despite the heroic efforts of some primary-school teachers trying to keep 30 infants attentive for a weekly half-hour video meeting, Zoom is no substitute for a classroom. Neither is Padlet, Twinkl, Google Classroom or Seesaw. At primary level particularly, school is not just about working your way through a set of assigned tasks or watching videos; it’s about learning to socialise, to play, to negotiate and to be independent. None of this can be done remotely, no matter how dedicated or brilliant the teacher.

Remote learning might be a more realistic concept for secondary students, but it relies entirely on them having access to technology and broadband. If remote learning becomes an ongoing part of the national education framework, educational inequality will be exacerbated. The children who will fall behind are those without access to technology; those without a full-time stay-at-home parent; those whose schools don’t have access to technology; those who struggle to self-motivate in the absence of a stable routine.

This weekend, impossible, unthinkable choices will be weighed up. Will I continue to let my children fester at home on screens, being educated by Joe Wicks and RTÉ’s Home School Hub, or will I give up work and make sure they are properly educated myself?

The Constitution says children are entitled to “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”. The Education Act 1998 requires the Government to guarantee everyone in the State “a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person”. A day a week in school is not an appropriate education.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown everything up in the air. But we’re beginning to figure out what is needed to piece society back together. As the country unlocks, detailed guidance is being issued on various sectors. We know, for example, that publicans won’t be able to put a tap into a pint glass. We know what spa treatments will look like at luxury hotels. But we have no clear idea yet what is going to happen in schools or creches. All we’ve been told, so far, is what is probably not going to happen. This is despite the Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, acknowledging on Morning Ireland on Friday that the impact on children of Covid-19 is much lower. There is also no clear consensus on whether children transmit coronavirus asymptomatically.

Inevitably, schooling that fills only 20 or 50 per cent of the normal hours will force parents – frequently mothers – to choose between their child’s education and their jobs. This weekend, impossible, unthinkable choices will be weighed up. Will I continue to let my children fester at home on screens, being educated by Joe Wicks and RTÉ’s Home School Hub, or will I give up work and make sure they are properly educated myself? If I keep working, who will look after them on the 2½ or 4 days a week they’re not at school?

The State has failed Irish children repeatedly throughout its history. We were sharply reminded of that this week, with the future of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as a standalone department up for grabs right at the moment when children most need a voice at Cabinet.

By abdicating its responsibility to educate children on the basis of an unknown risk, the State is in danger of failing them again.

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