Plan to postpone the Leaving Cert dogged by dozens of unanswered questions

Opinion: Students deserve clarity - but exam delays create more questions than answers

I am a Leaving Certificate student and in recent weeks we have been clamouring for clarity around the fate of the 2020 exams. The announcement last Friday by Minister for Education Joe McHugh was meant to provide this.

Unfortunately, the announcement has created more questions than answers. It has merely kicked the can down the road. Students deserve clarity - but the volume of unanswered questions is creating fresh uncertainty for many of us.

1. When will the exams start, exactly?

There’s still no official start date for the exams, the first time in living memory this has happened. This in and of itself screams of uncertainty which was meant to be ended by the announcement.

The exam timetable is now not going to be released until June. How could it possibly take this long?


2. What impact will this have on students’ mental health?

Two more months of added stress, anxiety and pressure on students for exams that are still not guaranteed to go ahead in July or August. Students are now being asked to study through the summer with no added motivation, considering all their upcoming plans such as holidays, concerts and sporting events have now been thrown out the window.

What toll will this have on students’ wellbeing and mental health? Has this even been considered?

3. Will the digital divide grow wider?

The two-month extension only further exacerbates this issue with the chasm between the advantaged and disadvantaged growing even further.

Courses are still incomplete and are in all likelihood not going to be completed at this stage.

4. What happens if teachers refuse to return in July?

There is currently no deal in place for teachers to return to schools in July. What if the unions oppose this idea? The ASTI has already stated that “no teacher will be required to do anything. The proposal from the Department of Education cannot be enforced”.

Students’ futures could end up being used as a bargaining chip.

5. Is two weeks really enough to catch up?

The proposed two-week period in class before exams isn’t enough time to get anything of significance covered. It’s not even a day for each paper. It needs to be a much longer period than this.

Students generally want the two weeks directly before the exams to cram in as much as possible. They don’t want to be in class three or four days out from the first paper. So, the proposed period of students being back in class should not be the weeks directly preceding the exams.

As a result, there is a very real chance that many students will choose not to turn up for these classes.

6. No date for practicals or projects has been given

Will these eat up the proposed two weeks that we’re supposed to be getting in class?

I’m aware of students who do four subjects (engineering, technology, construction and art) all with outstanding practicals or projects left to be completed. And if practicals proceed, how is social distancing going to be implemented in these settings? Take construction, for example: students need to regularly move around the room sharing the same tools and pieces of equipment for a period of four hours.

7. What happens if a student feels the onset of symptoms during the exams?

Under current guidelines, this student would be required to self-isolate for 14 days. By the end of isolation, the exams would be over. This could open a can of worms wherein any student who doesn’t want to sit the exams can claim they have the symptoms and there would be no way to prove otherwise until they have been tested.

8. Uncertainty for students who test positive for Covid-19 before or during exams

With the tight timeline currently proposed, these students would have no chance to sit their exams at a later date. Therefore, it’s not hard to envisage a scenario where infected students continue coming to exam centres as they fear missing out on their dream course.

Also, how are we going to deal with the problem of students who are infected but asymptomatic? A student could potentially be carrying this virus and infecting other students and invigilators for up to 14 days unbeknown to them. There is no way to safeguard against this.

9. No room for assisting bereaved students

Beginning last year, students with a bereavement in their family could sit the exams a month or more later than everybody else. That can’t happen now with the tight timeline currently being proposed.

10. Potential shortages of teachers to mark their exams

There’s already anecdotal evidence on social media of teachers withdrawing their correcting applications as they’ll be back to work in the final week of August and won’t have time to correct exams.

Even if they manage to find enough teachers willing to correct the exams, there’ll be a lengthy delayed return to school for other students as their teachers will be marking exams when schools are set to reopen.

11. How will invigilators assist students?

A record number of invigilators being needed is already a huge challenge but getting these extra invigilators to supervise in the month of August could prove a stretch too far. How will these invigilators walk around the exam centre and carry out basic functions such as answering students’ queries and handing out extra paper whilst keeping at least two metres from them?

What about students who need scribes, particularly those with special educational needs. How will social distancing be maintained in this instance?

12. Immuno-compromised students would need to sit the exams in total isolation

There are simply not enough invigilators or exam centres available for every student in the country with an underlying illness.

13. Public health hazards

How are we going to prevent students congregating in toilets, outside exam halls and between exams in public areas?

14. The length of the papers

Students sitting in a room together breathing, coughing and sweating for a period of three hours and 20 minutes is a public health hazard no matter what social distancing guidelines are in place.

15. Students living with elderly people

Would they be required to isolate from these relatives throughout the period of the exams?

16. Students with childminding duties

Students who have to take on childminding duties as their parents are working on the front line are disproportionately affected and this problem has only been prolonged by the two-month extension.

17. Possible changes to the papers were hinted at by the minister on the radio. What on earth does that mean?

Are they going to start tweaking the already prepared papers? How will this be done fairly considering every school has different parts of each course covered?

18. Lack of appeals process

It has been reported that there’s likely to be no appeals process this year. With the correcting of papers already set to be rushed, losing the ability to appeal would be catastrophic for many students.

19. Are students going to get any break?

From the information currently available, it seems as if colleges will begin tuition soon after the CAO offers. If that’s the case, students will have studied continuously from September 2019-April 2021 without any time off.

20. How will students find accommodation?

The hunt for student accommodation is always difficult. Given that other students are set to return to college as normal in September, what hope do first-years have of finding places in late September, October or even November? Landlords aren’t going to hang around for then.

21. How will students be able to earn money for college?

Students who were relying on a summer job to pay for the cost of going to college may now not have the funds to move on to third level education.

22. Payment of Leaving Cert fees

Many families are going to struggle with the €116 payment which is due by April 30th with so many people currently out of work and on reduced wages. What plans are in place to ease this burden?

23. What is the plan in the event a second wave of the virus comes in late summer?

This doesn’t appear to have been given any consideration by the Government. Further postponement of these exams would render the 2020/21 college year futile.

24.What lies ahead for students studying abroad?

Students applying to UK or elsewhere abroad are completely in the dark and may now lose out on places as they won't have results to present to their potential colleges on time. Similarly, international students coming to Ireland to study will be held up until these exams have been completed and the CAO process finalised.

25. Who will the minister for education be in July?

With government formation talks at an advanced stage, it’s highly likely there’ll be a new education minister in the coming weeks. This is a source of political uncertainty, What if the new minister sees the need to take a different approach?

26. How will students get to the exams?

Will public transport be operational or curtailed throughout July and August for the proposed two-week class period followed by the three-week exam period? If so, how will they maintain social distancing on what are in most cases, small buses?

27 .Will closing dates be extended?

The closing date for late CAO applications is May 1st, will this be extended? The opening and closing dates for the CAO change of mind facility are May 5th and July 1st respectively, will these now be extended? The opening date for Susi grants is April 23rd, will this now be extended? There are a multitude of Hear and Dare deadlines throughout June, July and August, will these now be extended?