I am pleased to be before the House to set out the work that myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as well as our officials and indeed, the partners in education, have been engaged in over recent weeks to ensure the continued provision of education to our students throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While schools are providing remote education at present, the resumption of in-person teaching and learning is a priority for Government and intensive engagement continues with the partners in education to do so as soon as possible. Just this morning, I convened a meeting of stakeholders from the primary and special schools sector. We are working together towards a staggered return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children who access special educational needs, SEN, supports in mainstream primary classes beginning on 21 January next. Schools will also have discretion to accommodate their most vulnerable students. I wish to acknowledge the engagement and work of all of the partners in education so that we are in a position to move forward in this direction from 21 January for the benefit of all of our children with additional needs. We also continue to work together to set out a pathway for the return of all children at all levels of schooling, subject to Government and public health consideration of what constitutes the safe movement of people. My officials continue to engage closely with senior public health specialists in this respect and direct communications in the coming days through webinars, videos for parent and written FAQs will supplement the significant levels of information and guidance available.
Since taking office, this Government has made the provision of education its priority. School, and education more broadly, is a hugely powerful and positive force in our young people's lives and it is vital that this is preserved for our students in these most challenging times and circumstances. International organizations, including the World Health Organization, WHO, and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, have outlined the negative impact of school closure on children's health and well-being, as has the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. For many children, school is not only a place of learning but also provide opportunities for social and personal development, healthy eating and physical activity. As the research of New Zealand education expert, Mr. John Hattie, has shown, school can be a hub of response and recovery, a place to support emotional recovery and promote social togetherness and this is as important as any academic gains.
It is for all of these reasons that Government and the Department of Education have invested heavily in schools to support them throughout this pandemic. In total, a package in excess of €437 million has been provided to schools to support their continued operation.
Funding has been provided for the employment of replacement teaching staff, special needs assistants, SNAs, and administrative staff, as well as for an additional 1,080 teaching posts at post-primary level. This includes 120 guidance posts, which have been provided to support student well-being. Provision has also been made to provide primary schools with additional substitute staff. In addition, significant additional measures are being adopted to increase the supply of teachers at both primary and post-primary level.
There has been a €75 million capital allocation to support schools to prepare their buildings and classrooms for reopening, including an uplift for schools with pupils with special educational needs, and €4.2 million to enable schools to employ aides to implement measures to deal with the logistical challenges schools face at this time, such as moving furniture, changing classroom layouts, setting up hand sanitiser stations and signage and everything else that is involved in schools' preparations with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. An additional €52 million has also been provided to schools to put in place enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in schools.
The package also made additional provision for special schools and special classes in recognition of the particular challenges these schools and classes face in dealing with children with complex medical and care needs.
From a public health perspective, national data on the Covid-19 positivity of close contacts since schools reopened in September are reassuring. Schools have not been identified as amplification settings for the infection, meaning that transmission rates within our schools are low. In his letter on 5 January, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, noted that the majority of cases of Covid-19 infection in children and adolescents occurred outside the school setting during September and through to December. This is in spite of the significant proportion of their time that children and young people spent in schools during this time period. All of the evidence shows that, through the hard work and dedication of school communities, supported by the Government, and through the resources provided to schools by the Department of Education, schools can and do operate safely.
We are all aware of the importance to children of keeping schools open. Nonetheless, last Thursday, the Government took the difficult decision to close schools to all students, pending further discussion with our partners in education. This followed a week of engagement between the education stakeholders, my Department and me. Last Monday, my officials and I met education stakeholders to discuss the planned reopening of schools on 11 January and to seek their views. My officials updated education partners on the latest public health advice available from NPHET and on their own engagement with public health experts earlier that day, both of which advised that a full reopening of schools on 11 January was safe from a public health perspective. At this briefing, a number of stakeholders shared their view that in the event of any school closures, specific accommodation should be made for certain cohorts of students, most notably students with additional needs and leaving certificate students. Interestingly, this was reiterated by many of the spokespersons on education at my meeting with them on the evening of Monday, 4 January.
The following day, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, wrote to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. In his letter to the Minister for Health on 5 January, the CMO advised that it was his view that while the experience in schools to date had clearly demonstrated that schools are, in themselves, a safe environment, the epidemiological situation had deteriorated to a point at which the significant levels of mobility and linked activity that the full reopening of schools would generate might pose an additional risk. In his letter, the CMO stated categorically that this advice was not based on a changed assessment of the risks in relation to transmission levels in schools. Rather, it was a reflection of the overall epidemiological situation and the absolute need to reduce mobility and movement within the community.
On foot of this advice, on Wednesday, 6 January, the Government made the difficult decision to close all schools with limited exceptions for children attending special schools and special classes and to facilitate partial attendance for leaving certificate students. Given what we know regarding the impacts of school closures on children and young people, this was not a decision that Government took lightly. It was clear, however, that the public health situation required a strong response which minimised movement to the greatest extent possible. Under usual circumstances, the daily school run involves nearly 1 million students, 100,000 members of staff and, of course, a significant number of parents and guardians.
Two limited and targeted exceptions were made, namely, for students with special education needs and for students in their final year of school. Students with special education needs were prioritised to receive in-person education as many students with special educational needs struggled immensely during the last period of school closure, experiencing considerable distress and loss of learning. This was also a challenging time for the parents, guardians and families of children with special educational needs. Furthermore, students in their final year of the leaving certificate cycle were prioritised for in-person teaching and learning to provide them with valuable confidence in the lead-up to their final examinations. These two limited accommodations were made while remaining mindful of the need to reduce movement within the wider community.
On Thursday, Dr. Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director of the HSE and member of NPHET, and Dr. Abigail Collins, public health specialist, facilitated a briefing for education stakeholders on the Government decision to reopen schools on a limited basis for children with special educational needs and leaving certificate students. In a meeting lasting over two hours, Dr. Kelleher and Dr. Collins reiterated their belief that schools are safe environments and that it was safe for both students with special educational needs and leaving certificate students and staff to operate schools at this time, utilising the preventative measures that are in place. Nonetheless, shortly after this briefing on Thursday, a number of stakeholders expressed their clear opposition to this plan and the Government took the decision to pause the limited reopening of schools pending further engagement with all partners in education.
Our renewed engagement with partners began the very next day and on Friday, my officials and I met with parents, students, unions, management bodies and principal networks. On Monday, 11 January, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, I met representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and AslAm. These representatives brought with them the lived experience of students with special educational needs and their families and they were united in their view that remote provision simply does not work for many children with special educational needs. For these families, school is not just a building but a place to belong and to be accepted and a safe environment in which to thrive. All of these representatives expressed their very clear concerns regarding the impact of school closures on their children and young people. I share their concerns and my Department and I have continued intensive engagement with representatives of students, parents, teachers, SNAs, principals, and management bodies to discuss the best path forward for our children with special educational needs and for those in greatest need.
As I mentioned earlier, I am pleased to have made significant progress towards our goal in this regard. Following near-daily engagement with key stakeholders in the primary and special school sectors, we are working together towards a staggered return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children who access special educational need supports in mainstream primary classes, beginning on 21 January. We continue to engage with primary and post-primary stakeholders to work toward our ultimate goal of a return to school for all students.
I am pleased to note that the Minister for Social Protection has continued funding for the school meals programme at this time to enable school meals provision to continue. This mirrors the arrangements that were in place during the school closures in 2020, when the vast majority of schools in the school meals programme put arrangements in place to ensure that pupils most in need continued to receive food parcels. I am very grateful for the efforts of school principals, staff and all who work to make this possible.
Schools are being asked, where feasible, to make arrangements to continue with the provision of the school meals programme through a delivery model that suits their individual needs best. Community and voluntary support is also available to schools through the local authority community support network programmes to assist with deliveries. Contact information for these supports has been provided to all schools.
Significant work is also being carried out by school communities during this period of closure to ensure the learning of all students is supported at this time. As a contingency measure for the possibility of partial or full school closures, the Department has provided a suite of guidance materials to help schools to support pupils and students learning remotely.
Guidance has already been provided to all schools and agreed with the education partners advising all schools of the requirement to provide for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of school closures. This guidance was first circulated to schools in the initial period of school closure, and was subsequently reviewed and agreed with the partners in education. Final guidance in respect of primary and special schools was published in October 2020 and final guidance in respect of post-primary schools was published in December 2020.
In accordance with this guidance, schools should seek to provide regular engagement with pupils and students. In a primary setting this should, ideally, be on a daily basis; in a post-primary context, teachers should, as far as possible, engage with students as per the normal timetable. There should be a blend of guided and independent learning tasks and experiences. Remote teaching should involve both direct teaching by the teacher and the assignment of independent learning tasks for completion by the students. There should be appropriate and engaging learning opportunities. Teachers should ensure that the chosen learning tasks give pupils and students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a clear and concise way. Regular opportunities for feedback should be given to students.
Schools should ensure that two-way feedback between teachers and parents and guardians is encouraged and supported. Schools should provide manageable and accessible opportunities for all pupils to regularly share samples of their work with the teachers throughout each week. Teachers should ensure that work received is corrected and relevant feedback is provided.
Support for SEN pupils involves special education teachers continuing to engage with the pupils on their caseloads. Class or subject teachers should differentiate teaching and learning in line with their pupils' needs to minimise disruption to their learning and progression. Further guidance to schools in respect of children with special educational needs and students experiencing educational disadvantage has also issued.
Planning for leaving certificate examinations in 2021 and consideration of all the issues arising is under way by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and my Department. This work is being assisted by an advisory group of key stakeholders, which includes representatives of students, parents, teachers, school leadership and management bodies, the SEC, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service.
The advisory group meets regularly, and I am committed to continuing to meet, consult and engage with this stakeholder group on all matters relating to examinations. The advisory group is considering all the various issues regarding the holding of the 2021 examinations, including the issues emerging relating to public health, and will continue to do so. All partners are committed to acting in the interests and well-being of students, who are at the heart of this process.
A number of adjustments to assessment arrangements have already been made at leaving certificate and junior certificate level, taking account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during the 2019-20 school year and further possible loss of learning time in the 2020-21 school year as a contingency measure. The adjustments play to students' strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the examinations, while incorporating additional choice. There will be no change to the length of the written examinations.
I am aware that some from the student cohort have called for the examinations to be curtailed, delayed or perhaps even cancelled with others suggesting that alternatives should again be used in 2021. Let me be clear on this point; my Department and I are listening to the students on this and to the other stakeholders involved.
The advisory group has met several times already and a further meeting is planned shortly. My Department is continuing to engage in direct bilateral consultation with stakeholders this week, including student representatives. The Department engaged directly with the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, on Tuesday evening, and I spoke briefly with Reuban Murray, the president of ISSU, yesterday evening. In addition, a meeting with ISSU is scheduled for tomorrow morning.
The Government has also prioritised continued operation of school-related construction sites, as this is critical to enable the State to sustain the operation of schools in the current academic year and to deliver additional school accommodation requirements that arise in September 2021 to meet mainstream and SEN school places requirements.
These are very difficult times and difficult decisions and choices needed to be made. I am very grateful for the co-operation and leadership that the entire school community has shown in working together to enable education provision to continue safely and effectively during the September to December term. We hope to see the virus coming back under control and being more manageable as we move into spring and summer. My focus is on working to get schools open and to sustain this opening through until the end of term, working with our partners and with public health.
When I met Opposition spokespeople last week, several Deputies indicated that they wished to work collaboratively as we face the challenges currently before us. I thank them for that. As public representatives, we can ensure that how we face the challenges is informed by the broadest range of views and perspectives and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.
I again express my thanks to all in the education sector, including the Opposition spokespersons, for their ongoing work and support for all the children and young people we serve in the education sector.