Covid-19 school absences: What parents and teachers need to know

Do parents face prosecution for Covid-related absences? Are children entitled to remote tuition?

Teacher Tina Walsh teaching a student remotely using an iPad and an interactive white board. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Covid has changed many facets of school life, but an area that is still fraught with uncertainty is that of attendance.

The pandemic is posing a series of vexing questions for schools and families as they try to balance health advice with the provision of education this year.

Can parents face prosecution for prolonged Covid absences from school? Are children entitled to remote tuition if they are at risk? Do parents face losing their school place if they homeschool their children?

Hospital Report

We’ve examined how schools are navigating their way through the maze of scenarios posed by Covid-19 absences to help shed light on how these issues are being addressed in classrooms


Remote learning
Under Department of Education guidelines, only students medically certified as "very high risk" are entitled to access school tuition remotely on an ongoing basis.

It means some students end up missing school because they are following restricted movement protocols, while some students are being homeschooled by their parents who have become concerned about the rise in Covid-19 cases.

Tina Walsh, primary school teacher at Cloonliffen National School, Co. Mayo, has been providing remote access to one of her vulnerable 6th class students since September.

"I ring her on Google Hangouts for about twenty-past nine in the morning," says Walsh, "The iPad sits at her desk and she faces the other two students that are opposite her."

When the class need to see the board, Walsh moves the iPad so that the student can see it. “It’s like she is virtually here,” says Walsh. “She is online with us, in her uniform, twice a day minimum. She is always with us for Irish and maths and then she might be with us for English and SESE [social environmental and scientific education].”

Under Department of Education guidelines, students medically certified as very high risk are entitled to access school tuition remotely. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Walsh emails the week’s work in advance and when the student is not in virtual attendance she works independently from the pre-explained work.

“She has health issues,” says Walsh, “She needs to be home, but she also has an entitlement to education.”

The student’s parents first contacted the principal about the possibility of remote learning for their daughter in June and are in regular contact with Walsh now.

“I meet her mom every week,” says Walsh, “They are so thankful to be honest that their daughter can continue her education but just in a safer way.”

While Walsh reports that the provision of distance learning during class is “completely normal” now, she also says it would be difficult to provide it for more than one student in the class.

“We wouldn’t be able to cope with any more than one pupil because we only have ten iPads, says Walsh. “If I have her on the iPad it means there are only nine iPads in the school.”

Recent guidance on remote learning published by the Department of Education, outlined several scenarios for its implementation.

It is suggested that a designated teacher from staff who has been medically certified as being at very high risk of Covid-19 could support remote learning from home. It is also suggested that the special education teacher could reassign time to support remote learning needs.

There is growing concern, however, that reliance on special education teachers will increase the negative educational impact Covid-19 has had on those with additional needs.

Responsible attendance
While schools normally promote and encourage full school attendance, this year things have changed.

"We need to rethink what responsible school attendance looks like," says Caitríona Hand, principal of Citywest Educate Together National school (ETNS). "And responsible school attendance this year is not the same as responsible school attendance last year."

Hand says that, while parents should be aiming to send their children to school, they should also be following HSE advice in relation to Covid-19 guidelines.

“If there is any chance that you might be a risk to someone else because of Covid, then you should not come to school,” she says, “Take that day to get advice from your GP and follow their advice.”

Hand says that the community have been very responsible when it comes to school attendance this year. “The children are coming in when they should, and they are staying at home when they have symptoms or have been a close contact and must restrict movement.”

The list of children who have missed 20 days is quite separate to the request for support for a family and it doesn't result in action

When a student is restricting their movements or has been advised to self-isolate, schools are tasked with supporting the continuation of that student’s learning.

Guidance for schools also stipulates that they should “support equity of access to digital resources” and prepare students for remote learning by giving them “frequent opportunities to use selected digital platforms.”

Walsh states that, while she believes it is necessary to provide remote support to students for Covid-related absences, it is increasing her workload. “I do think they need to continue on with the work at home, but I do feel that it is a lot of extra work for teachers to be dealing with a class and then to go to the online learning too.”

20-day concerns
There was some initial concern among parents that Covid-related school absences would result in Tusla investigations.

However, while schools are obliged to supply Tusla with a list of all students who have missed 20 days of school, this will not result in automatic intervention.

“There are two types of submissions that schools make in terms of attendance,” says Hand. “And the list of children who have missed 20 days is quite separate to the request for support for a family and it doesn’t result in action.”

Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, recently confirmed that Covid-related absences would not form part of a student’s overall attendance record.

A spokesperson for Tusla stated that it “will take into account the requirement for students who feel unwell with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 or who have been informed to self-isolate and not to attend school. Schools will note any medically directed Covid-related absences as explained.”

This may alleviate the concerns of parents, but it has caused some confusion among school principals who say they have not received official communication on the matter.

“We haven’t been given a mechanism for recording that,” says Hand, “I haven’t gotten any clear guidance on how to report Covid-19-related absences, we have just come up with our own phrasing within the school.”

Uncertified home-schooling

As the number of confirmed cases rise within the population, so too does parental anxiety and there are an increasing number of parents seeking to avail of remote learning.

Schools are, however, not obliged to provide remote learning without medical certification. The educational onus lies solely with the parent or guardian in this scenario.

Hand explains that schools also do not have the capacity to provide support for this situation.

“Our job at the moment is to provide in-building education,” says Hand. “If we try to do something else as well, that is going to weaken what we are tasked with right now.”

We appreciate that families have very legitimate concerns, particularly where a family member has an underlying health condition

Citywest ETNS has published their distance learning plan on their website and parents who choose to keep their children at home are free to use it but Hand stresses that their focus is on the provision of in-school education.

Hand also says that the school will not be providing additional work to children who are at home for a couple of days.

“Our distance learning plan is there, and parents are free to use it,” says Hand “They are encouraged to use it without expectation of feedback from the teacher.”

There are concerns among teachers, however, that during Level 5 restrictions they may be expected to provide both in-building and remote education.

“We appreciate that families have very legitimate concerns, particularly where a family member has an underlying health condition, “a spokesperson for Tusla says.

They also state that anecdotally they have seen that parents are monitoring what is happening in their child’s school and community and are making decisions based on this.

“Let’s say in Level 5 parents don’t want to send their kids in, I fear that we are going to have be doing both in-class and online teaching, and that will be a lot of work on teachers,” says Walsh.