The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) has issued a letter to the Minister for Education Norma Foley and the Department of Education & Skills outlining the serious concerns students have regarding the reopening of schools. This coincided with the #Safety4Students hashtag trending at number 1 in Ireland on Wednesday 19th August.
The letter, outlining each of the concerns and need for more inclusive planning, is shared below.
Dear Minister Norma Foley,
In light of the recently announced government restrictions, the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union is calling for clarification on a number of critical concerns regarding the restrictions now implemented and guidelines provided for the return to school. Evidently, students, families, teachers and all in the school community recognise the necessity to return to school and want to return to education having been out of the classroom since early March. However, this requires clearer communications on the health and safety protocols expected within schools. To ensure an effective transition in the reopening of schools it is pivotal that guidance and clarification is provided on the following areas of concern.
The ISSU is requesting that the Department of Education and Skills provide the guidance given by the health and safety authorities, outlining the rationale whereby numbers within classrooms / school buildings are deemed acceptable in contrast to the current restrictions imposed by government. The government has also clearly indicated that citizens are expected to avoid public transport if at all possible, yet a substantial number of students will rely on this mode of transport to get to and from school every day. The ISSU would ask the department to explain the viability of this and the alternative arrangements for students who can no longer travel to school via public transport due to personal and / or medical concerns.
The ISSU recommends that a risk assessment contingency plan be developed and distributed to all school stakeholders, in conjunction with the relevant health authorities. This plan should define the threshold number of cases where schools will be required to close locally and nationally, provide guidance on the measures to be taken in a school should a case/cases be confirmed and the steps to follow for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of a closure. This is particularly important as a full school closure was mandated on the 13th of March with 70 cases confirmed nationally which is significantly less than the newly confirmed cases over the last two weeks. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, recently commented it is “almost inevitable that if schools open that there will be clusters in some schools”, emphasising the necessity for this contingency plan to be clearly communicated and provided to all students, families, teachers and school management in advance.
The Minister for Education has previously stated that the responsibility to provide tuition online to immunocompromised students will be the sole responsibility of the school. Any student who is immunocompromised or has a family member who is immunocompromised must be able to protect themselves and their families without fear of penalty. These students must be facilitated in receiving meaningful, proactive online tuition if unable to return to school. The ISSU is calling for the department to develop a national framework of how this online tuition should be provided.
The discrepancies of the digital divide resulted in varied education received during school closures. This must not become a barrier should online tuition be the only viable option again under possible future restrictions.The ISSU welcomed the financial aid package to help address issues regarding online learning, however support and specific guidelines from a national framework on online learning is essential, not only for students but for teachers to be able to facilitate and sustain an equitable teaching experience. Procedures should be implemented to include a review of online teaching and learning within the School Self-Evaluation and Inspectorate advisory arrangements for 2020/21. This is crucial to ensure fair and equal access to education for all especially those who are at high risk and left with no other options than to engage in learning online. Online learning should be treated with the same level of accountability and review as in class tuition.
In the event of a localised school closure students and teachers will be expected to transition very quickly again to online platforms. The ISSU acknowledges and appreciates the work undertaken during the closures by teachers and would encourage the department to have all necessary supports, supplies and CPD given preemptively. Stated in a department circular on the 13th of March “where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where schools are equipped to do so.”. All schools should be equipped sufficiently to provide online lessons in the coming academic year due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic and the likelihood that there may be some closures. Every student has the right to a certain standard and level of education that should be fair for all.
The ISSU recognises that students play a key role in the safe reopening of schools and have responsibilities in this process as well. All stakeholders will work collectively for the safety of the school community. A prerequisite must be set that in the event a class is not adhering to appropriate guidelines that a student is given the right to stop the class and bring the breach of guidelines to the attention of the class teacher or designated COVID-liason staff member. The class should not resume until it is safe for students and teachers present. The challenges faced by students are multifaceted in the return to education. Clarification is needed on the concerns aforementioned in order to prioritise the welfare of students and ensure that no student is left behind due to circumstances outside of their control.
We eagerly await your reply and hope to collaborate on establishing practical actions for the concerns highlighted.