Return of secondary students on April 12th depends on fall in Covid-19 cases - Minister

Foley says there is ‘burden on all society’ to ensure schools fully reopen next month

Minister for Education Norma Foley said  there is a burden of responsibility being placed on all of society to ensure schools can fully reopen. Photograph: Julien Behal

Minister for Education Norma Foley said there is a burden of responsibility being placed on all of society to ensure schools can fully reopen. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

The planned return of more than 200,000 secondary school students on April 12th will depend on progress being made in reducing Covid-19 cases, Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.

While primary schools are due to reopen fully by March 15th, along with fifth and sixth year students going back at second level, the remainder of post-primary students must wait until after the Easter break before returning to school.

“There is a burden of responsibility being placed on all of society to ensure that can happen,” Ms Foley told the Oireachtas education committee.

“The deputy chief medical officer has made it very clear that we need to see things improve, numbers come down, hospitalisations come down... society must invest in ensuring our schools can reopen as fully and as quickly as possible.”

In response to a question from Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD, Ms Foley confirmed there will no later sitting of the Leaving Cert exam in the event that it is not possible to run exams in some schools for public health reasons.

She said the availability of accredited grades this year provided a back-up for these students.

Mr Ó Laoghaire, however, said this decision was “extraordinary’ and meant some students may be unable to sit exams through no fault of their own if there is a lockdown in their area.

He said the fact that later exam sittings have been held for bereaved students in recent years meant this should be available to students this year.

Ms Foley said she is planning is under way for an expanded summer “catch-up” programme for children with additional needs and those from disadvantaged areas.

It is aimed at supporting those students whom, research shows, have lost out most from the shift to online learning.

A version of the summer programme last year was expanded to provide for up to 24,000 students.

She said it was her intention to provide for a “much more expanded” version of this in 2021 with a big emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan added that she was examining the possibility of providing catch-up supports for special needs pupils in school settings.

Currently, students with special needs are entitled to five hours a week of extra one-to-one support with teachers, but this is provided in pupils’ homes in the evenings or weekends and take-up has been lower than expected.

Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD said the Government needed to be more ambitious and noted that the UK government was planning a s£1 billion catch-up programme for students.

On the Leaving Cert, Ms Foley confirmed that her department is preparing legislative amendments to enable the State Examinations Commission to oversee the new accredited grades system for Leaving Cert students.

Ms Foley said she will seek the assistance of the committee in ensuring legislation can progress through the Oireachtas as expeditiously as possible.

A process is being developed, meanwhile, to enable out of school learners to avail of calculated grades to the “maximum extent possible”, she said.

On the issue of the safety of schools, Ms Foley said enhanced school public health teams will provide advice on handling positive cases and fast-tracked access to testing.

In addition, she said, medical grade face masks are being made available to special needs assistants, special education teachers and others who have difficulty maintaining physical distancing.

She said rapid antigen testing will be introduced to schools if public health authorities recommend such a step. It is understood that an expert advisory group will recommend their use later this month.

Ms Foley also confirmed that a report on senior cycle reform is due to be completed shortly.

The use of accredited grades and changes to the exams means there is a “new light shining” on Leaving Cert reform, and she looked forward to discussing the issue with education partners.