Parents can be assured that schools are taking all necessary precautions to ensure children will return to “safe and welcoming” classrooms from next week, Minister for Education Normal Foley has said.
The recent increase in Covid-19 cases and challenges involved in putting safety measures in place has led to many calls from parents and teachers on social media to delay the start of the academic year.
The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) said some of its members had safety concerns ahead of schools reopening and that it had sought a meeting with the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) to outline its views.
“Understandably there is much trepidation amongst teachers as they begin what will no doubt prove to be an extremely challenging school year. The ASTI is seeking this meeting to have the concerns of teachers addressed, most especially teachers suffering from serious underlying illnesses,” ASTI president Ann Piggott said.
“Given the evolving situation and the recent reappraisal of some of the advice provided by NPHET and HPSC, teachers have been expressing concerns about the health implications of a return to the classroom.”
The ASTI said it was “seeking an expansion of accommodations” from the department to provide for teachers who fall into at risk categories, including remote teaching.
Ms Foley said enormous work is being undertaken in school communities to provide a safe environment for the return of children to schools.
“For parents, I understand that you may feel anxious about your child’s return to school,” she said.
“We are living in a new normal. However, we have put in place all the precautions necessary and along with the dedication of the principals and teachers at a local school level, you can be assured that your child will return to a safe and welcoming classroom.”
Meanwhile, Ms Foley confirmed Leaving Cert and Junior Cycle candidates are to be given greater choice in next year's State exam papers to help ease pressure on students who have lost out on months of school.
It means that students completing the Leaving Cert higher level English exam, for example, will have a wider selection of poets and other questions in the exam. Similar changes with greater choice and fewer mandatory questions are being made to all State exams due to be held next year.
In Leaving Cert subjects where students are given project briefs, these will be issued about a month earlier than normal to ease pressure on students.
In addition, subjects with course completion dates late in the school year will have the deadline brought forward by about two weeks as a “contingency measures”.
For Junior Cycle students, the number of classroom based assessments which students must complete has been reduced from two to one.
The date for the completion of this assessment has been extended into the new school year.
In addition, Junior Cycle students taking the final exams in 2021 will not be required to complete assessment tasks for relevant subjects.
As a result, the grade descriptor awarded for these subjects will be based on the exam paper only.
The changes were been arrived at through discussions between the Department of Education, the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NACH) and key stakeholders .
Ms Foley said the decision to give students more choice in exams was the most appropriate way to take account of the challenges facing State exam students who have out of the classroom since last March.
She said the changes will play to student strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the exams while incorporating additional choice.
Adjusting or tapering curriculum would not be effective, she said, given that schools are at different stages in teaching courses.