I last spoke in this House immediately before it went in to recess. At that time I had just published the Roadmap for the Full Return to School. That was only five weeks ago and much has happened since then. An incredible amount of work has been undertaken in the school sector. As a country dealing with the challenges of Covid-19, we are in a different place now than then, but just as the publication of the roadmap represented an important milestone on the road back towards the "old normal", I concede that there are many miles left on the road to normality. I was at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response yesterday and we covered a range of the issues of concern to school communities across the country as well as to me as Minister and to Deputies. It is a measure of the importance of education generally and indeed the education sector in this country that the Oireachtas has scheduled a significant amount of its time this week for education matters. This level of engagement with the Oireachtas has been a feature since the closure of the education sector in March and it ensures that we keep a light on the work being undertaken and the concerns that arise.
As Deputies know, the re-opening of our schools was since my appointment, and continues to be, my number one priority. It was not a hope as some would have characterised it when we were last in this House. It was very much a realisable ambition which like all ambitions presented a series of challenges for us to address in order to realise it. I have been fully supported by Government in putting in place the supports necessary to realise this ambition and in recent days and this week we have seen that ambition being realised. Government has been united in viewing the re-opening of schools as a national priority. I am very much encouraged by that cross-Government support and I wish to express my sincere thanks to all concerned.
Cabinet approved the Roadmap for the Full Return to School in July. It sets out how the public health advice provided to my Department on the safe return to school could be implemented at individual school level. Approval was given for over €375 million in additional funding necessary to support its implementation. I provided details of the supports being made available to both Houses of the Oireachtas during that last week of July and the effect of those supports has been seen across the country as schools re-opened their doors from last week. During August, I provided a number of updates on how the planning for schools re-opening was progressing. To date, the payments made directly to schools exceed €160 million.
My Department brought forward the payment of the annual minor works grant to primary schools, totalling approximately €30 million, which is typically paid in either December or January each year. In addition, an enhanced minor works grant, which matches the 2019 payment, has also been issued directly to schools. This amounts to €60 million which has now been issued directly to primary schools in minor works grants since the publication of the roadmap. A minor works grant amounting to €42 million issued to post-primary schools in the free scheme. The minor works grant provides schools with the necessary flexibility to implement necessary physical measures in their school quickly to enable the full return to school. These measures include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts and the short-term rental of additional space. Given that each school setting is different, individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate reconfiguration measures for their school which are necessary to facilitate school re-opening. Further, more than €30 million of capitation supports has been made available to primary and post-primary schools to fund personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser requirements.
The roadmap was developed following intensive engagement with partners in education, including staff unions, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies and representatives of parents and post-primary students. This co-operation and collaboration has continued, including at a local level where school communities have worked together to best address their local circumstances. On Tuesday, officials met with the primary and post-primary stakeholders again to maintain that spirit of partnership regarding school re-opening. There was also a meeting of the advisory group on the State examinations earlier this week, emphasising the continued co-operation in that area. There are daily engagements with partners in education and these will continue.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the unstinting and selfless efforts of school communities across the country over the last weeks and months to do all that is necessary to re-open our schools. We owe a debt of gratitude to all of them for their generosity of spirit, a reflection of their absolute dedication to their students and the provision of education for all.
The roadmap and its accompanying documentation provided schools with guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating the school safely in a Covid-19 context. Template Covid-19 response plans for schools were also provided to schools. These plans provide clear and practical guidance and support to schools on the range of measures that need to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The Department has produced age-appropriate guidance for students in the form of animated videos which are intended to help students further understand some of the new routines when they return to school. Guidance is also available for parents in several languages. These animations are available at gov.ie/backtoschool and also issued to schools to be disseminated to parents.
The HSE's Health Protection Surveillance Centre has confirmed that all recommendations in the public health advice I published at the beginning of July including physical distancing guidelines as set out in the roadmap still apply in all schools, with the exception of the recommendations on face coverings, which have been updated to reflect the latest research and expertise. Teachers and post-primary school students should wear face coverings similar to those worn in shops or on public transport when a physical distance of 2 m cannot be maintained. Guidance for parents, guardians and families on the return to school is available online at gov.ie. Parents and guardians can direct specific queries to their school should they prefer.
A letter was issued to all schools last week, together with a HSE document titled, Schools Pathway for COVID-19, the Public Health Approach. This document sets out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community and also the principles that will underpin the management of outbreaks or potential outbreaks and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility. It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, the HSE's public health department. All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure according to the principles set out in the document. Any actions to be taken by the school will be communicated directly by the HSE's public health department.
School management will be informed as and when actions such as the exclusion of children or staff, or partial or full closure, are deemed necessary on public health grounds.
Children will continue to display symptoms of many other circulating respiratory viruses. It is known that young children often have a persistent cold. According to HSE guidelines a child with a blocked or runny nose but no fever can attend school, but if they require paracetamol or ibuprofen they must stay at home for 48 hours and parents or guardians should contact the GP to assess whether a test is required.
Students and staff who have symptoms of Covid-19, including fever, new cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, or loss or change to their sense of smell or taste, should not attend school.
The definition of close contacts within a school will be variable and determined by a risk assessment that will take account of individual factors within each school or class. It will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts. Close contacts will be directly notified by the HSE and advised to restrict their movements and present for testing on day zero and day seven. Close contacts will restrict their movements for 14 days even in the event that Covid-19 is not detected in both of these tests. There is no blanket policy to test entire classes or years. The testing strategy will be aligned to the public health risk assessment, which may recommend widespread swabbing within a class or school under HSE testing procedures.
In the event of an outbreak, public health will determine between a range of possible interventions, from exclusion and testing of a small group or pod of pupils up to and including closure of an affected facility. All schools are required to have a summary of key information to assist public health in its public health risk assessment, ready to be provided on request.
Outside the school environment, everyone should follow the latest public health measures announced on 18 August, which are available on gov.ie. Specifically in regard to medically vulnerable children and household members, guidance is published by the HSE. In the context of achieving physical distancing in schools, schools have reconfigured their available space and have sought to utilise all of the options available to them.
I have heard the concerns raised in regard to class sizes in our schools and in our primary schools in particular. It is important to note that we have seen what is commonly referred to as the pupil-teacher ratio reduce in recent years. The staffing schedule has undergone a number of changes in the period since 2014. These changes include the general average pupil number per teacher being reduced from 28:1 to 26:1; the introduction of retention for small schools in 2015; and the changing of retention thresholds for Gaeltacht schools. The current programme for Government commits to making further progress during the term of this Government on the staffing schedule.
I know that school transport is an area of considerable interest to Deputies. It came up during the Covid-19 committee sessions yesterday. It was perhaps the issue on which we spent most time yesterday. The school transport scheme is a massive daily logistical undertaking right across the country and it is worth repeating the numbers involved. In 2019, more than 120,000 children, including some 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in more than 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, covering more than 100 million km at a cost of €219 million. Several Deputies at yesterday's Covid committee hearing raised the area of funding for the operation of the hygiene requirements on school transport vehicles. A sum of €11.3 million has been allocated for this purpose. This cost estimate was based on cost per vehicle, based on the number of vehicles on the scheme, and includes a contribution towards the cost of personal protective equipment, PPE, for drivers, enhanced cleaning and sanitising materials and labour, with an estimated cost of €6.1 million for the period from September to December 2020. For the period from January to June 2021, an estimated €5.2 million will be required for cleaning materials, labour and PPE.
The provision includes ongoing monitoring of any additional expenditure for enhanced cleaning requirements or PPE to ensure continued compliance with safety requirements in line with public health advice. Under the terms of the arrangement my Department has with Bus Éireann, it is funded on a cost recovery basis for costs associated with the operation of the school transport scheme. Therefore, as costs are incurred as a result of the additional hygiene and PPE requirements, they will be included in the bill to the Department for the relevant period. The Department has not given the sanctioned €11.3 million over to Bus Éireann. The costs as they arise will be charged to the Department by Bus Éireann as they are incurred.
The recently received updated health advice from NPHET does impact on the operation of post-primary school transport services. The Government decided that the arrangements made for the primary school transport scheme would proceed as planned when schools reopened. These services are operating fully with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures as already outlined. The post-primary scheme has also commenced operation with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures on services, and with the rolling implementation of measures to provide physical distancing in line with those required on public transport, and which is using 50% of passenger capacity on the post-primary services as required.
My Department is engaging with Bus Éireann in respect of these plans to implement measures so that any services that can operate from the start of the school year at 50% capacity will do so. Over the coming period, all other post-primary transport services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. Bus Éireann has returned to the market seeking additional operators to provide services. I expect to see additional capacity coming on stream over the coming weeks and we are committed to ensuring the public health advice is given effect in the operation of school transport.
Deputies will also be aware of my recent announcement which provided for the parents of children who are eligible for transport, but decide not to avail of post-primary transport services, to receive a grant to support them with the cost of private transport arrangements within defined parameters.
Deputies will also be aware of the announcement I made this week on calculated grades, which followed a Government decision on proposals I put forward to amend the national standardisation process within the calculated grades model. Under the calculated grades model, estimated marks from schools will be adjusted, as planned, to ensure a consistent standard is applied across schools throughout the country when judging the performance of students. The change I introduced removes the use of school-by-school historical data in the standardisation model and places a greater emphasis on the estimated marks provided by schools to individual students. Fairness has always been at the heart of the calculated grades model. The calculated grades process is being used for the first time. Standardisation will ensure the candidates receiving calculated grades in 2020 are treated fairly and equitably relative to each other.