Schools attended by some of the State’s poorest children are struggling to help pupils re-adjust to life in organised education and catch up on their learning after they spent lockdown without enough food, with non-English speaking parents and in overcrowded accommodation.
Principals warn that young children have missed crucial literacy and numeracy supports, while waiting lists for disability interventions have grown “chronically” during the pandemic as these services stopped.
There are about 900 Deis (delivering equality of opportunity in schools) schools in Ireland, identified as having a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Éadaoin Kelly, principal of St Mary’s National School in Dublin’s north inner city, is “very worried” about some of her 240 pupils. English is the second language of 88 per cent of pupils and about 10 per cent are homeless.
“We are still getting our heads around the impact six months out of school has had on them,” says Ms Kelly. “They have had such a difficult time. It has been traumatic.”
She and community-liaison co-ordinator Síle McDonnell outline situations in which some children spent lockdown.
“I know of a family where there are four children, mum and dad in one room. They sleep, eat, cook and live in one room,” says Ms McDonnell.
With help from Vodafone and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the school bought 50 tablets and provided wifi to 30 households.
“We had one family who had to go to a friend’s [house] to plug in the tablet from school because they had no electricity. They still have no electricity.”
Families had teachers’ mobile numbers and each family was called weekly. In many cases staff visited children at home and in emergency accommodation, delivering food and helping with technology – at all times wearing masks and remaining outdoors.
“There are some families, though, where the literacy levels and the tech know-how are so low it was almost impossible for them. For others, trying to live day to day was their priority. Language was a big issue for some,” says Ms Kelly.
“Additional supports are needed – in psychology, social and emotional supports, in-school counselling.”
She says the mother of one boy with a disability diagnosis has just been told her son will be waiting 60 months for the speech and language and occupational therapy interventions he needs.
“That’s five years. He’ll be finished primary school,” she adds.
“We always meet children where they are at, take a personalised approach, but in terms of trying to get them back to where they should be, it’s a huge task and we have been given no extra resources to do that. Nothing.”
Deirbhile Nic Craith, assistant general secretary with the Irish National Teachers Organisation, says children under seven will be most affected by long absences from school, especially when home resources are limited.
“The first thing is to get back, get the routines going again. It’s a question then of putting more resource teachers into the schools in the short term so that the children have more time with teachers and small-group interventions.”
A spokeswoman said the Department of Education recognised the “crucial importance that the learning of all learners, especially vulnerable learners and those at risk of educational disadvantage are supported at this time.” Guidance has been issued to schools, she added.
“To support the alleviation of learning loss and the transition of learners back to in-class education, an enhanced programme of summer provision for children with additional needs and those who are experiencing educational disadvantage is being developed.”
Details would be announced in the coming months, she said.
Case study: ‘In other parts of the world there are worse situations’
Varenth Kumar (8) is “very happy” to be back at St Mary’s National School off Dorset Street in Dublin 1.
“I prefer to see my friends,” he explains.
He spent lockdown at home in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his sister Veenosha (17), mother Anne and father Krishna.
Mr Kumar, a hotel concierge, has been out of work since March 22nd, 2020. Initially getting the Covid payment of €350 a week, the family now get "a bit more" on jobseeker's benefit.
“It is tough going,” says Mr Kumar, “but we have minimum expenses now. In other parts of the world there are worse situations.”
It was a learning process for us. You need patience
As well as supporting his family, he is sending remittances to his and his wife's parents in Malaysia – a country they left 21 years ago for Ireland. He has not had to take a break from his small mortgage.
Mr Kumar says they “coped quite well” during the lockdown.
“We had a good routine, and great communication from the school. We had Varenth’s teacher’s personal phone number if we had any questions or needed help,” he says.
“It was a learning process for us. You need patience. From morning we start by 9am and finish by 4pm. We take turns because it is a small little apartment. So, when I go to the shop, Anne takes over with the English. Veenosha is great with the Irish. When Anne is cooking, I am doing the maths.”
Being together all day was difficult at times, “but we got through it”.
Varenth misses the homework club for children for whom English is a second language, run by the local New Communities Partnership (NCP).
Funded by the Department of Justice, under the National Integration Fund (NIF) since 2017, the club worked with 140 migrant children in five local schools. The NIF transferred to the Department of Children and Equality last year. The homework club is no longer funded.
"It is such a pity," says Sevak Khachatryan, NCP communications officer. "The children loved it."
A spokesman for the Department of Children said the NIF, worth €2.3 million over three years, received 116 applications last year and 18 were successful.
“A large number of strong proposals did not receive support,” he added.