Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. We will now discuss Covid-19 and the new measures introduced by the Department of Education. I invite the Minister to make her opening statement.
Covid-19 and the New Measures (Education): Statements
I am very pleased to be here to provide Senators with an update on the important measures that have been taken to address the continuing impact of Covid-19 on the educational experience of our children and young people. The continued safe and sustainable operation of schools has been a key priority for the Government and broader society. This simply could not have been achieved without the sheer hard work, creativity and leadership of every single school across the country. I know that it has been both challenging and exhausting for principals, teachers, SNAs, school staff, boards of management and everybody involved in the school community sector but it has been vitally important for all of our children and young people that our schools have continued to operate throughout the pandemic. In doing so, we have worked intensively with the Department of Health and with public health officials who continue to monitor the situation in schools and to advise on the management of the Covid-19 virus within our sector.
The Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, recently announced a programme in which antigen tests will be made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises with effect from Monday of this week. Schools have been provided with letters for parents on the opportunity to avail of antigen testing for children in primary schools where there is a confirmed case of Covid-19. Translations of these materials have been made available in 21 languages and further work is ongoing to make these available in even more languages. The HSE has prepared a video for parents on administering antigen testing and has also created child-friendly guidance. Parents and guardians of a primary school child who is a confirmed case of Covid-19 following a PCR test are asked to inform their school's principal. The school principal will then inform the parents of other children in the pod of a confirmed case, advising them of the option to access antigen tests for their children through a HSE helpline should they wish to do so. These antigen tests will be delivered to the child's home. Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod within a seven-day period, antigen testing will be offered to every child within the class setting. It is important that parents inform principals quickly if a child receives a PCR "detected" test result for Covid-19. By doing this, the choice to participate in antigen testing can be offered to other parents quickly. It is important that everyone continues to follow all the public health advice in using this new programme. It is also important that everyone continues to accept the advice regarding those experiencing Covid-19 symptoms that it is vital that they restrict their movements and seek medical advice or a PCR test. Children who are in a pod where a child has tested positive for Covid-19 can continue to attend school whether they participate in antigen testing or not.
As Senators will be aware, last week NPHET strongly recommended the wearing of face masks or coverings by children aged over 9 on public transport and in retail settings, as already required for children aged 13 and over. The team also recommended that this is introduced for children in third class and above in primary schools. NPHET has advised that this measure is being introduced on a temporary basis and is subject to review in mid-February 2022. This public health recommendation was accepted by the Government on Tuesday. This is not a decision that was taken lightly. I recognise that it presents yet another challenge for students, their school communities and their families but it was taken in order to support the continued operation of our schools and to offer the best possible protection to our students and school communities.
Having worked for many years in the school sector, I know how important it is that students and staff are advised clearly of any additional measures being asked of them. I am also deeply conscious that no two students are the same and that it is paramount that we support the needs of all of our students. As such, schools will adopt a practical and flexible approach in implementing this new recommendation. It will take a number of days for schools to implement this new measure as they engage with their students, parents and guardians on the matter.
Students who have medical needs or additional needs such that mask wearing would be uncomfortable or not possible will be exempt from the general requirement to wear a mask. Schools know their students best and where a school is aware that this may be the case, no certification is required. Again, while I know we would wish that it would be otherwise, we must do all we can to support the continued operation of our schools for our children and young people and to mitigate against any further school closures. The Department continues to be available to support any principal or school where issues arise.
Managing ventilation is just one of a suite of public health measures in place to keep our schools safe. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices in schools was provided at the end of May following the work of an expert group that carefully considered the role of ventilation in managing Covid-19. This guidance outlines the steps that should be taken to ensure that classrooms are well ventilated. Furthermore, the guidance outlines that carbon dioxide or CO2 monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas or rooms may be adequately ventilated. As such, a number of portable CO2 monitors have been provided to every primary and secondary school in the free scheme. In excess of 35,400 monitors were delivered to almost 4,000 schools across the country.
Where the measures in the guidance have been undertaken and poor ventilation continues to exist in a particular room or area, air cleaners or HEPA filters may be considered as an additional measure in conjunction with other methods of ventilation that are available. This is in line with the report of the expert advisory group. Schools that identify inadequate ventilation in a room can also apply for emergency works grant assistance to address these ventilation issues.
I am very clear that there is no one solution that fits all scenarios so each application requires bespoke analysis and selection of the appropriate unit matched to the specific room size and volume. If a school believes that its individual space may require specific technical specialist advice, the assistance of a chartered engineer or registered architect can be sought. Schools can also avail of technical assistance from the Department.
I am aware and appreciate that there has been interest in the arrangements for teacher substitution and the shortages that have emerged in recent weeks. I have recently announced a number of additional measures to provide enhanced substitution cover in the context of current challenges arising from the Covid-19 emergency. Higher education institutions have introduced increased flexibility in their initial teacher education programmes in order to allow third and fourth year bachelor of education students and master's in primary education students to enhance their availability to undertake substitution work. A further 200 posts are being allocated to the primary substitution teacher supply panel in existing or, indeed, new areas where significant challenges in sourcing substitution has continued, bringing the total posts allocated to 680 covering approximately 2,600 schools.
Qualified primary and post-primary teachers on secondment to the Department's teacher education support services have been asked to make themselves available to provide substitute cover in schools also. Continuing professional development at primary and post-primary levels where substitution is required has been postponed until after the February 2022 mid-term. This measure is being taken on an exceptional basis.
Post-primary teachers can now work more than 22 hours per week, working extra hours to provide substitution cover up to a total of 35 additional hours to the end of February 2022. There are a number of other measures, including teachers who are on career break, where the restrictions have been lifted. For teachers who are on job share, restrictions have been lifted also so that they can work additional hours in their own school or can choose to do it in another schools. Retired teachers can also work unrestricted until the end of the year without it impacting on their pension. My Department will continue to engage with education stakeholders to identify solutions to the current challenges in recruiting substitute teachers.
Covid-19 has impacted all aspects of education but we must remember that some have been impacted more than others. I acknowledge that school closures have had a greater impact on the education of some students. My Department aims to mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on student learning loss. The Department, from the outset, has focused on providing additional resources and measures to assist schools in supporting all students but, in particular, students with special educational needs and those most at risk of educational disadvantage. I have worked closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, in this regard.
The Department spends over €150 million annually to provide a suite of supports aimed at tackling educational disadvantage as part of a school's Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, or DEIS, programme. Budget 2022 allocated €18 million for 2022 and €32 million in 2023 to extend this programme for further schools.
In order to address the impact of Covid-19 the opportunity to offer summer provision was extended to all primary and post-primary schools this year, at a cost of up to €40 million. This was in addition to €10 million allocated to a supplementary education programme aimed at students with complex educational needs. In addition, the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, has been put in place for the 2021-22 school year to help mitigate the adverse effects of school closures on students. Provision of €52 million has been made available to provide additional teaching hours to all recognised schools on a once-off basis.
Schools have the flexibility to identify the pupils who have been most affected by school closures and guidance has been provided by the Department. The additional hours have been available since 11 October 2021. For example, a primary school with 250 students enrolled will be entitled to 15 weeks' additional teaching time. A secondary school with 850 students enrolled will benefit from 47 weeks' additional teaching time.
In relation to students with special educational needs, the Department put in a place a supplementary programme in February to provide additional support to pupils with complex needs during the period of a phased reopening. The programme was delivered in the pupils' homes by teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, and over 14,000 pupils availed of the scheme. In May of this year, the Government announced the expanded programme that built further on the programme for 2020. For the first time, all schools had the opportunity to run a summer programme. The home-based programme was available for eligible pupils where their school was not in a position to provide the programme. The total number of pupils who availed of the summer programme either at school or in a home setting rose from 22,851 in 2020 to 36,672 in 2021, an increase of 60%.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for many of us, including children and young people. Many normal rites of passage have been disrupted and it has been difficult at times for students to access their usual support systems, be those supports with school friends, with school itself or outlets such as sport or creativity. It has never been more important to emphasise well-being and supports available to students through their schools. I acknowledge the work of all of the support services and school staff in supporting students' well-being through a whole-school team approach ensuring that students feel safe and secure.
While the Department of Health has overall responsibility for mental health services in Ireland, the Department of Education has an important role to support the well-being and positive mental health of all our young people. The approach proposed is a whole-school and preventative approach, which has multiple components that include providing children and young people with opportunities to build core social and emotional skills and competencies; experience supportive relationships within the school setting; and be part of a school environment and culture that feels both physically and psychologically safe, in which they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness and where their voice is heard and they feel supported. A broad range of supports, resources and professional learning opportunities is being provided to support schools to promote and support well-being and resilience by the Department's support services. These services support schools to provide strong universal support at the level of whole school and classroom, more targeted support for some children and young people who may be at risk, and more individualised support for those with greatest need. The well-being of school staff is also paramount. My Department has put in place a comprehensive employee assistance service as a supportive resource for all school staff.
On 30 June last, I announced that adjustments would be made to the 2022 leaving certificate and junior cycle examinations. As with previous years, adjustments were developed in conjunction with the leaving certificate advisory group, which includes representation from students, parents, teachers and schools. These adjustments ensure that the overall familiar structure of exams remains intact but it allows for greater choice. Guidance has been issued to schools to reflect these changes. The level of adjustment will be similar to that applied by the assessment arrangements for junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations in 2021. I also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations would be run in 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations, and would be limited to certain students who are unable to sit the main set of examinations due to close family bereavement, Covid-19 illness and certain other categories of serious illness.
The State Examinations Commission will issue further details regarding the 2022 examinations guided by prevailing public health advice.
A meeting of the examination's advisory group will take place shortly to discuss the timing of leaving certificate oral examinations in 2022.
I am grateful for the invitation to attend the Seanad today. I assure Senators that I and officials in my Department continue to work hard to address the challenge of Covid-19 to support students and school communities throughout the country. I acknowledge and express my thanks for the hard work being done by school communities to support all the children and young people whom we serve every day in the education sector. I thank Senators for their ongoing positive and proactive engagement with me and my Department on issues of education.
I gave the Minister some extra time because it was important that Members heard her entire contribution. I think all Members will appreciate that she has clearly addressed the issue of mask wearing for children aged nine and upwards who are not comfortable with them. Along with other Members, I wish the Minister well in her portfolio which is challenging because of the ongoing Covid pandemic.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber today. Like everybody else, I am looking forward to the day when she comes into the Chamber to debate leaving certificate reform, school transport changes or the school building programme envisaged under the national development plan. We are all tired of this pandemic but unfortunately we need to continue to deal with it. There is no manual or handbook for it; we are feeling our way through it. That challenge needs to be recognised.
I know the Minister appreciates the work that is being done by the entire school community in responding to this. The actions the Government is taking are in the interests of public health; we are acting on public health advice. This is not about forcing children to wear masks or anything else. This is about trying to protect lives. It is important to send out the message that the action being taken in schools is about trying to protect lives. It is not that these are necessarily measures that the Minister wants to introduce. The most important thing for all of us is that we protect lives in the school community and also in the wider community.
I welcome that the Minister's opening statement mentioned exams. While those facing into State examinations next year may not have experienced the same level of disruption as the leaving certificate classes of 2020 or 2021, they have experienced significant disruption. It is important that the leaving certificate group the Minister established continues and, in particular, that it has engagement with the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU.
I am very proud that at all times during the discussion of State examinations, the Minister put the interests of students first. I encourage her to continue to do that and to have that engagement. She is right in saying these students have lost many aspects of their rites of passage which will have long-term implications. We need to look for ways to support them. This does not just relate to exams, but also to other aspects of their lives. In the context of exams, I ask her to continue to engage with the ISSU and to put the interests of students first in giving them those options.
One of my primary concerns, as I am sure it is one of the Minister's, relates to disadvantaged students. During this pandemic some students are learning at home in a supportive home environment and have been able to learn. However, many students have fallen behind. While I accept the July provision and summer supports have been made available, we have not quite measured the impact of this pandemic on certain students' learning. While we will come through this pandemic, I am concerned how that disadvantage will manifest itself in two, three or four years' time. We need to ensure that long-term supports are in place for children in primary school who have not been able to achieve their full potential, as they would have done if they had had a normal education. It cannot just be about summer provision or other small areas. It must be about being able to follow those children right through the education system to ensure that while the pandemic has disrupted their lives, the supports will be made available in the long term. We need to make a commitment in that area.
As we come out of this pandemic, the following matter will be important. We have seen a big shift to online and blended learning. This has been a challenge, but the education system has responded. We need to assess that entire process. The education system will be using technology to a far greater extent in the future. It would be useful to look at what worked and what did not work. Everyone accepts that people learned new things about how technology operates. Students learned in particular ways. Some schools were particularly innovative. Looking at how we used technology and how students learned using it will serve us well into the future. In the future, schools will be using augmented and virtual reality headsets and will have completely different ways of learning. Our experience over this period will be important.
I thank the Minister for her work. I look forward to debating those other issues with her soon. Hopefully everyone in the school community will get through this period.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, to the Seanad. I thank her for visiting St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe, which is one of two special schools in the area to confirm a new site. The additional accommodation had been expected in September, but I hope it will be there in January to support the children from that school who are now trying to manage in classrooms in other locations. I would like to see that accelerated.
This debate is about Covid-19 and the new measures coming from the Department of Education. I acknowledge the Minister's commitment and that of the team in the Department to keeping schools open. The incredible principals and teaching staff are doing their best to keep children safe. However, teachers, principals and parents are at their wits' end. There is a crisis.
As the Minister noted today and as the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, noted in the Seanad yesterday, the highest incidence of positive Covid cases is among children aged between nine and 11. This has resulted in NPHET issuing new guidelines on mask wearing. There is a crisis in primary schools at the moment. As the Minister mentioned, when a child tests positive it is up to the parents to contact the school and then the principal contacts the other children in the child's pod. We need more, however. There must be more support on contact tracing which is inadequate given levels of positivity in that age group. How will we manage until the end of December and into January? I know there is stabilisation in other age cohorts, but not in this age cohort. I believe extra supports are needed in this area.
I ask the Minister to clarify if the Department of Education or the HSE will be supplying the antigen test kits. Batches of antigen tests should be sent to schools and the schools should be able to give them to the parents of the children concerned. Currently, as I understand, they are sent solely to parents. I believe schools should have access to the tests. This applies in particular to DEIS schools where we have disadvantaged children so that they can supply them to the families directly.
The Minister also mentioned masks in schools. I welcome that schools can decide on certification for children based on medical or additional needs. Regarding ventilation, I welcome that she mentioned the emergency works grant assistance scheme, but I ask for the timeline for schools applying for it. How many schools have applied for it?
I have spoken to several principals and teachers who were taken aback by the type of language the Department used to communicate the changes. The language in communication needs to reflect that this is a team effort involving the Department of Education, principals and schoolteachers. The type of language used in communication is crucial.
I believe that needs to be looked at. More could have been done to alert teachers who were probably panicking when they heard this on the news for the first time. Information could be provided on the immediate timelines for when teachers and principals are notified once a communication is issued publicly.
On the issue of supply panels, in one of the supply panels in my own area, there are three teachers covering 27 schools. I know that an INTO survey was done between 1 November and 16 November on substitute absences. In one particular school, there were 73 absences in a two-week period and they could only fill 39. I welcome the fact that the Minister has introduced measures to allow students in third and fourth year to come forward to provide support. Again, it shows that we just do not have the staff on the ground to support this because children are having to stay at home and parents are having to do the same. Our children with special educational needs are suffering. In respect of the students coming forward to provide cover, if they are living in Limerick or Dublin, are they supporting the schools in those areas? How do we get students in those areas to travel further afield, perhaps 100 km away, if there is a school that is in need of their support?
We are looking at leaving certificate reform in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Many stakeholders and witnesses have appeared before us on the issue. The Minister has stated that she will be having discussions on it. It is most important that the voices of students are heard in terms of what we are planning for this year.
I raised a Commencement matter recently on an issue close to my heart, that is, the DEIS school identification model. In that Commencement matter, I spoke about the fact that the programme for Government provides for an investment of €18 million to look at the timelines for the DEIS school identification model so that we can see what schools are being added. The same should be done in respect of the hot school meals programme that was announced recently by the Minister for Social Protection.
The Minister is most welcome; it is good to see her in the Chamber again. In the last four weeks, we have seen a 240% increase in those testing positive for Covid among the five- to 12-year-old age cohort. Obviously, that is hugely alarming and has led to significant steps being taken by the Minister's Department. Three major steps have been taken now. One of those is the provision of antigen tests for close contacts, which is most welcome. The second is the provision of additional staff in substitute teaching resources. The third, which many are debating at the moment, relates to mask-wearing. I think it is really important that we put on the record the importance of mask-wearing. The WHO and all of the experts internationally say that there are two things that need to be done to help stop the spread of this horrible virus, that is, vaccination and mask-wearing. Any of the research that has been done across the states which have implemented the mask-wearing regime for children has shown a huge decrease in the overall transmission rates. Research showed that in North Carolina, for example, 7,000 children and staff were carrying the virus and only 363 cases were found as a result of that 7,000. That would be unheard of if the adults and children were not wearing masks. The virus is so transmissible at this stage.
I would like to talk about ventilation. It is an issue I spoke about yesterday in the Seanad and on Galway Bay FM this morning. Yesterday the radio station received a huge amount of texts on the issue of HEPA filters. I know that the Minister mentioned them in her statement, but I am conscious that Professor Wenger, who chaired that expert committee, said that not enough is being done to identify schools that are at risk and where HEPA ventilation might work. It does not work for every school. It is important to point out that not every school needs it. However, it stops 99% of particulate matter from circulating in the air. It is an issue for Covid. From my perspective and that of my party, it is also about looking at air quality in general. As we think about the years ahead and what else is coming down the track, it is an investment that will stand the test of time. I would like some further information about what is being done on the issue. I know that schools can apply for HEPA ventilation. To echo what was previously mentioned, how fast is that happening? I have heard of instances where parents are paying for the filtration systems themselves.
The second point I wish to raise concerns vulnerable students. I have just come to the Chamber from the launch of a report that we did in the Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, of which I am a member. We travelled the country going to halting sites and being brought into people's homes. I saw, first-hand, a case of four children sleeping on a floor because the house had only one bedroom. There were a few teenagers in the house that I visited who were falling asleep on the sofa because they had had such a poor night's sleep. That was after they came home from school. It is an issue that I think is Covid-related as well, because people have been kept at home. We have to learn the lessons of that. As many people have said, including the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, it is the children from the most disadvantaged areas that have been impacted most by Covid in their education. That needs to be considered in looking at how we plan for the future to ensure that it does not happen. The provision of accommodation for the Traveller community is key, as are other areas like mental health services.
I have been contacted by a number of parents regarding special schools, in particular. A commitment that they will not close is needed. There is a real sense of fear and anxiety among parents.
The final point I wish to make concerns clothing. It is what got people so exercised in Galway yesterday. Every school is doing something different. The windows in schools are open. Some schools are saying that children cannot wear jackets; some are saying that they cannot put hoodies on. Sometimes, teachers are sitting there with jackets on. There needs to be a level playing field. Everybody must play by the same rules. Every child in every school is hearing the same information. They need to be warm or they are not going to learn.
I wish to briefly remind the Minister of the commitment she made to meet with the principal of Galway Educate Together Secondary School. I thank her for making that commitment. I would love to progress that with her staff.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I can appreciate the frustration out there. The Minister said, in her contribution, that the decision to introduce new measures is not one that has been taken lightly. I recognise that it presents yet another challenge for students and their schools. I have an issue with the fact that children were sent back to school with fewer mitigation measures in place, for example, the lack of filtration devices and the fact that contact tracing was ended. We know that this led to 12-year-olds having one of the highest incidence of Covid-19. For once, we were being told by Government that schools were safe. Last week, almost overnight, schools went from being safe places where contact tracing was not needed, to places where children needed to wear masks to keep safe. I can appreciate the frustration out there from parents, teachers and young people.
I also want to express my disappointment about how the guidance was released. At the time, there was no indication about when exactly the requirement to wear a mask would come into force. A few hours before that, mask-wearing for those aged under nine was not going to be mandatory, then it seemed that schools were being asked to enforce a mask-wearing policy. Senator Dolan talked about a team effort being required. It has been said many times before. I fully agree with that. I fear that the guidance was issued in a confrontational way, the idea being that schools would be policing a hardline policy when there might not be co-operation from people. I have a concern about that.
We also know that there will need to be exemptions to mask-wearing requirements. Masks create particular problems for children with special educational needs or sensory issues and for those who are hard of hearing.
They can be placed in a minority. We must all ensure that no child is penalised for this, as reflected in the Minister's contribution. It may not always be possible to obtain a medical certificate in the circumstances in question. Ultimately, however, the safety of our schools cannot hinge on mask wearing alone; we need a variety of measures. It is clear that contact tracing and filtration devices are essential. We should restore public health contact-tracing teams for schools.
The Children's Rights Alliance and other organisations have called for clear advice to be issued to schools before any directive from the Government to ensure schools can take account of each child's needs in assessing children's right to an education. What transpired the other night was the opposite of that. We need to be throwing the kitchen sink at this. The safety of schools should not hinge on mask wearing alone. There should be a filtration device for every classroom. Bringing back public health contact-tracing teams in schools will ensure that we can move out of this scenario as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Minister for Education to the House. I am the education spokesperson in the Seanad but I also cover further and higher education, innovation, research and science. If the Minister will indulge me, I might discuss education from primary level to tertiary level. I am the Senator for students, after all, so I might try to cover a couple of different areas, if that is all right.
I want to refer to government and leadership. I appreciate that the Minister will continue to do everything to keep schools open, but a buzzword flying around once again among people to whom I and, I am sure, the Minister have spoken is "lockdown". People are having conversations about what kinds of lockdowns we are going to have and how long they will be for. Sometimes it feels as if there are leaks of information and slightly coy announcements from some members of the Government. It may or may not be the case. If it is, it is not particularly helpful, particularly when we are talking about everything that can be done in schools to keep them open. Everyone is in agreement that education is important. It is not helpful if certain people in government, although not the Minister, are letting it slip that we may be going in and out of lockdown. It is not helpful to the school community, including students and parents. It is certainly not helpful for us. We are getting the emails about it. I just said I would put that on the record.
Senator Warfield mentioned communication and the question of where the information is coming from. I am in several education and school chats. A message can appear quite late at night stating a circular came around at 8 p.m. I appreciate that people are working under pressure and that staff in the Minister's Department are doing their very best to get things out, but I echo Senator Warfield's comment that communication can sometimes be quite brusque. When this is the case, people feel they are trying to play catch-up in the wake of an instruction the night before.
Senator Dolan referred to antigen tests and their cost. There was a lot of coverage of antigen tests over the past week, and there were comments to the effect that the market has somehow miraculously solved the problem of their cost. That is not a fair way to consider the circumstances. Antigen tests, even if they have gone down in price, are still expensive. There are conversations about schools and children using the tests but parents and teachers have to use them. I ask the Minister to consider whether antigen tests can be made more accessible for people who work within the school community.
I want to reflect on the substitution crisis. I am aware that the Minister referred to this and to using extra hours and releasing students to address it. I want to refer to a letter Labour Party colleague of mine, Mr. Seán Ó hArgáin, wrote to the newspapers the other week. He is a principal. He referred to the strain he is under trying to find substitute teachers. I am in a number of chats and note that the number one topic seems to involve principals saying they are on their knees trying to beg, borrow and steal substitute teachers. I acknowledge that the Minister mentioned in her opening statement many things she is doing to deal with this. I hope they alleviate the burden on some of the principals. The pressure that principals are under in trying to keep their schools open without teachers is made known to me frequently.
I have come across people asking for the number of whoever provides HEPA filters. Perhaps they have not checked their emails properly but an issue arises over communication in this regard. The Minister mentioned that if there are additional needs in schools, access can be had to the filters, but people I have spoken to are just not fully up to date on this.
The Minister said there would be a second set of examinations for those who are unable to sit the main set of leaving certificate examinations due to family bereavement, Covid-19 illness or other categories of serious illness. That is incredibly welcome. People have been talking for a long time about students who, through no fault of their own, sometimes missed out on sitting the leaving certificate examinations. I hope that in the wider conversation on leaving certificate reform, addressing this will be key.
At third level, students all across the country have been calling for a statement on whether in-person examinations will happen. The approach has been quite ad hoc. It is important that safety and Covid-19 should not represent a lottery for students. That goes for primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Particularly in respect of in-person examinations, some institutions, such as UCC and King's Inns, have decided they are going to have none, while others have decided that they will. The Minister might communicate with her fellow education Minister on what will happen in this regard.
We need to pay our student nurses and midwives. It is the Minister for Health, who is in the same party as the Minister for Education, who is in charge of paying them. There are still students working during the Covid-19 crisis. It would be great if the Minister for Education could have a word with the Minister for Health.
I welcome the Minister to the House. She will understand that there has been some frustration. A concern throughout this crisis so far has been that, in the area of education, there is a mix of very rigid measures and a lot being left to fall on the shoulders of individual boards of governance in schools. Individual boards of governance are left to figure out how they are going to implement and respond to certain things; yet, at the same time, they are also being denied flexibility. There is an early example that I have raised a few times and hope has been addressed. A family might not want a child going to school if he or she will be coming back to a house with a sibling with extremely compromised immunity. Every child lives with a family and goes back to a family. Schools were willing to offer remote access but they were being told by the Department that they had to mark children as being as láthair if they were not physically present. That is regrettable and an example of a lack of flexibility. At the same time, schools felt a heavy burden was placed on them to figure out how they were going to deal with circumstances this September. I realise there was some support given to schools but it was not enough. We missed an opportunity during the summer to have our schools in much better shape for September.
The ventilation issue was very much at play. There was reluctance in respect of masks for three or four months as it was questioned whether they were a good idea. We found out they were. With regard to antigen tests, there has been reluctance to rely on them. None of these things is the silver bullet; there is no silver bullet. What we have are a number of tools that will help us to address and contain this, and each of them needs to be used. It is welcome that antigen tests are now playing a role, but it was flagged very early on that antigen testing could have been a useful tool. It would have been useful had there been an antigen-testing framework going into September. On ventilation, regardless of whether HEPA filters will work for, or help, everybody, we should be using them. A colleague mentioned throwing the kitchen sink at the problem. If the filters help, even if only in some classrooms or in the staffroom, they should be considered.
Everything that minimises the spread is significant. They have had a major impact where they have been used, such as in hospitals. Rather than schools having to fight to make the case for HEPA filters, they should be made available to them. Of course, school buildings that are very old need to be prioritised, although if we had started in the summer, they could be in every school. I urge that the period of the Christmas break be used to get HEPA filters into as many classrooms and staff rooms as possible.
I welcome the fact the motion on workplace ventilation was passed by the Dáil last night. That is really important. There has been so much narrative about personal responsibility but the fact is workers and students are required to be in certain places. They do not have the opportunity to stay away from them. If there is a worry about HEPA filters giving false confidence, the fact is people have to be in those rooms in any event, and it might alleviate the fear many children are feeling.
The same is true of masks. I have talked to parents who have told me many children are reassured by the idea of masks in their classroom. Imagine what it is to be a child watching this pandemic unfold for the past two years and knowing you are not old enough to get a vaccine. Seeing the adults and the system around you making active efforts gives you psychological assurance and helps minimise the trauma caused by this process. I commend Orla Hegarty in particular, of University College of Dublin, UCD, school of architecture, who has led the way on ventilation and made strong points on that. I urge the Minister's Department to engage with her because she has been proven right again and again on this issue.
On university exams, I have been contacted by students from National University of Ireland Galway, Trinity College Dublin and UCD. It is vital they be given the option of remote exams. We know it is possible because we did it last year. Insisting on in-person exams in crowded exam halls is unnecessary and we should not take any unnecessary risks.
Finally, I urge the Minister, who sits at Cabinet, to support the TRIPS waiver in order that we can end this pandemic for everybody throughout the world. If it is difficult for us, it is much more difficult for those in the global south.
It is great to see senior Ministers coming before the House and giving ample time to sit with us and listen to us. In fairness to all sides of the House, we all acknowledge that. It happens with the Minister, the Minister for Health and others, and it should be appreciated.
It is a challenging time for the Minister and other Ministers. When we talk at parliamentary party meetings, she always mentions her staff and the effort they put in, and we all acknowledge that as well. I return to the point I always make in this Chamber. These are not ordinary times; they are extraordinary times. They are a time when everybody in society, whether politicians, parents, teachers, community leaders, gardaí, members of Civil Defence or whoever else, has to work together. Of course, we have to ask the questions, and sometimes they are difficult.
There is now a debate over masks. I have received calls but they are of a varied nature. I had a chat with a good friend last night who said her nine-year-old would not wear a mask. She said she could not take a mask off her throughout the Hallowe'en break because the child was wearing it, but then somebody in the school sector said not to wear a mask because it was bad. Another call, from Ballinasloe last night, related to a child who has asthma. I have been told that child will have to wear a mask but, of course, that is not true.
Let us come out with the clear messages now, not from social media or somewhere else. The Minister was clear, if my understanding is correct, that children over the age of nine who are unhappy with a mask do not have to wear one. I have every confidence in teachers and parents to work this out. Of course it is a challenge. I have a daughter who started teaching only last year. I acknowledge it is a challenge for all teachers, but there is a great will out there to help. Let us not lose that message. While there may be criticisms at times, and I know principals have a lot on their plates, we all have to understand that sometimes guidelines and rules have to be worked out. These are extraordinary times. When I talk to people at a local level, most of them clearly understand these are different times. Most of them now understand that no child over the age of nine will be forced into wearing a mask if it has special needs or feel uncomfortable with it. I reiterate that and I am sure the Minister will reiterate it if she is speaking over the weekend.
I will conclude with a few words about the leaving certificate. Covid is still not gone. I think my colleague, Senator Byrne, referred to this as well. We should not underestimate the statement the Minister made last year after her negotiations with second level student representatives to make special arrangements for that leaving certificate. That is still spoken about. My son completed his leaving certificate last year and he and his friends still talk about what the Minister and her officials did there. As we look ahead, we have to keep open our options in that regard, and I am sure the Minister will. I agree with all Senators that these are challenging times for students, parents and teachers.
There may be mixed messages, but I always say we cannot but have mixed messages with Covid because it chops and changes and there are new variants and everything else, so how the hell can the message be kept the same? It cannot be.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge the work she has done since she came into her role. I acknowledge also her staff and the role of all teachers in our schools, whether primary, post-primary or third level, for the work they have done over the past 12 months. It is very important our kids are in school. My wife, Una, is a primary school teacher and I have three kids who are all in primary school. Indeed, I dropped them into childcare earlier on my way up to Dublin. My oldest lad is four years old, was wearing his mask and has no problem with it, thankfully.
Even so, there are certain areas and people for whom this will cause difficulty. One of the groups I have been in contact with - I know some children and families who are part of it - is Our New Ears, ONE, a group that provides support to parents and families of children who use hearing technology, ranging from children who are hard of hearing to deaf children. While they understand the public health guidelines, they are dreading the fact their children will face an additional barrier to communication from a hearing and language perspective. The introduction of masks disproportionately affects their children compared with others.
The Minister referred to an exemption and, as Senator Murphy said, there has been clarification that there will be no need for a medical certificate for an exemption. In case it happens that someone does not want to wear one, I welcome that that is the case, although it does not help kids who have a hearing issue. It will be difficult for them to communicate, lip-read or whatever. ONE has asked me to put a couple of questions to the Minister. Will there be a derogation for classes that include children who are hard of hearing? Could masks be optional, with a pod created for children who have difficulty? It is important they be able to lip-read and communicate with other students. Other questions relate to the reintroduction of contact tracing, Perspex screens and, perhaps, investment in sheltered outdoor spaces. They are small asks but they are needed.
All our children are entitled to equal access to education and we must try to provide that access. I ask that these measures be considered. They could be a short-term circuit breaker for the children in question. We should look at different measures to ensure they are able to communicate.
With regard to kids in special education and their parents, early last year we had a situation where all schools were closed. We worked hard with the Minister, Deputy Foley and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to make sure special schools reopened early. There is a fear among parents of children in special schools that this may happen again. I ask the Minister to make clear that no matter what happens going forward, special education will continue. Ireland was probably the only country in the world where schools closed twice. We do not need that to happen a third time.
I have figures from a parents group I work with showing that 80% of children with special educational needs had no access to the July provision in 2021, while 5% had the full four weeks. These children have not caught up on what they missed. It just does not work for children in special schools. In 2019, just 90 children with severe to profound needs, out of 8,000 children in special schools, did the home-based programme. I ask the Minister to send a message to the families in question that under no circumstances will special schools close, no matter what happens. They are unique. Special schools have smaller classrooms with children in pods of a maximum of six.
I also ask the Minister to allocate a minimum percentage of third and fourth-year students in teacher training colleges to special schools to ensure special schools have automatic access to teachers and our kids do not lose out any more.
I ask the Minister to address those two areas. I have a personal knowledge of special education and I highlight those issues. I compliment the Minister and her staff in the Department. It has been a difficult 18 months but I know the Minister has worked hard and worked with the teacher unions and parent groups to make sure education stays open.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad for this very important debate. I compliment her and all the officials who have worked so hard over the past 18 months, which has been a challenging time. The Department is dealing with many schools with different issues, so it is certainly not an easy task.
There needs to be communication. I know the Minister has had a lot of communication but sometimes teachers feel they have not been consulted enough. She has been working with the unions. It would be useful if a regular communication could issue to teachers giving them updates.
All Members have received calls about mask wearing. I was talking to some nine-year-olds and ten-year-olds about this and they said they were wearing masks in any event because they were afraid of getting the virus. They did not have an issue wearing masks in school. While some people believe mask wearing by this group is not right, we, as legislators, and the Minister can suggest that it is necessary for people's health and safety. Individual schools will deal with the issue and if there is a medical issue with a child, the parents should speak to the school management or principal to sort out whatever the issue is. Mask wearing will not be suitable for all.
My colleague, Senator Dolan, called for antigen tests to be given out en masse to schools. I support that call because if schools have tests on site and somebody is feeling unwell, they can use them rather than waiting for the tests to be posted out. Perhaps each school should be sent a certain number of tests. That could be a recommendation.
Senator Cummins raised with the Minister for Health last night the people who got the one-shot vaccine. Many teachers are in that category. Many in the younger age group got the one-shot Janssen vaccine and some of them feel vulnerable. Will they be prioritised for booster vaccines? The evidence shows a high transmission rate between students in schools. Teachers should be prioritised for the booster vaccine, especially those who were given a one-shot vaccine. I ask the Ministers for Education and Health to consider that idea.
I am a firm believer that children should continue to play sport. People have been asked to reduce their children's social contacts, especially coming up to Christmas. When children are running around outside in the fresh air it is good for their well-being. The Minister mentioned well-being. Children need a connection with their peers and friends for their mental health. When sport is organised in a school there are also supervisors. Perhaps this issue could be looked at.
I compliment the Minister and wish her all the best. I welcome her statement that she will keep the decision on mask wearing under review. If she needs to make further changes, I hope the Minister will come back to the Seanad to discuss them. It is a very difficult situation but the Minister and her officials are doing a good job under the circumstances.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I do not envy the Minister her position. From day one, she has faced difficulties in her job. On the whole, however, she and her team have done a very good job.
The Minister referred to bringing in people who have retired or are not part of the mainstream cohort of teachers to substitute and fill gaps where they arise. I welcome that. It is a tremendously important response. I understand that student teachers who are at a certain level in their training will also be given the opportunity to go into classrooms. That is a welcome and progressive move. It is important, however, that they should not be expected to work for free and that they be remunerated.
They will be remunerated.
I accept that the Minister's acknowledgement in that regard. I appreciate that.
The Minister has issued guidelines to schools on mask wearing, which have caused significant upset among parents. Leaving aside the children who have particular difficulties, for example, children with a hearing difficulty who are required to lip-read for whom mask wearing obviously creates a problem, on the whole, masks make sense. It is regrettable, however, that the Department essentially issued an ultimatum to schools that expects principals and teachers to act like gardaí in the classroom by enforcing the rules. Perhaps a more hand-in-hand approach would have been more conducive to getting this done. Issuing a guideline or guidance for schools would have been more helpful. At this stage, this has been done and it may be something that cannot be rolled back on. People want to acquiesce, help and do the right thing and will do so when they are given guidance. Rather than putting teachers in a position where they have to be the police, if you like, in the classroom, it would be better to do as I outlined.
Reference was made to the HEPA filters. Given the amount of money the State is spending on mitigation measures in respect of Covid-19, be it on the EWSS, which was in the news this week, or any of the other measures that are in place, if HEPA filters help by safeguarding children in the classrooms and putting parents' and teachers' minds at ease, it is worth spending money on them. I ask the Minister to consider that.
While I am here, I will mention three other things that I have addressed with the Minister before. The first is in respect of Gaelscoil Laighean. Tá an Gaelscoil seo i mo cheantar féin i nGráinseach an Déin i nDún Laoghaire agus tá sí i suíomh nach bhfuil sách mór di. The school is in a site in Dean’s Grange at the moment that is not big enough. It is a temporary site. There was controversy before where the Department was proposing to move it to an unsuitable site in Dún Laoghaire and now is under consideration-----
Can we stick to the topic, please, Senator, which is Covid-19?
I am making a statement and it does-----
I appreciate that, but we are conscious that everyone has restricted their engagement to this subject. I appreciate where the Senators is coming from and I thank him.
There is a proposal for a site in Mount Anville which seems to be stuck in the mud. This proposal needs to moved along because next September the school will not have enough room.
Similarly, on the autism spectrum disorder class in Booterstown, has the Minister any update on the progress with the site for St. Mary’s Boys National School?
There is also an important issue I raised on the Order of Business this morning which seems to have slipped in under the veil of Covid-19 in the context of Clonkeen College. The Edmund Rice Schools Trust, which runs Clonkeen College, has decided not to reappoint the board of management at the school there, which included parent representatives, and to put in place instead a single individual executive manager of the school. I will finish on this point, a Chathaoirleaigh Gníomhaigh, but it is very important to acknowledge that schools are not companies and are not to be run by managers but are to be run by people who understand education and in the interest of teachers, schoolchildren and parents and these groups should be included on the board of management. A single manager for a school like that is not appropriate. Can the Minister comment on this matter, please? I know that there are regulations in place, which I cannot find at the moment, that allow schools to do this, but it seems to me to be the wrong course of action. This is being done now by the trust under the guise of Covid-19 when they can get away with it and it should not happen. I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach for his indulgence.
I thank the Senator Ward, who pushed the parameters a bit there. Can I suggest to the Minister to respectfully say to the Senator that these are either Commencement matters or matters for engagement with her? Many issues were raised by the Senator. The Minister is writing copious notes, but we have very limited time. I appreciate, nonetheless, where the Senator is coming from. I call Senator Lombard, who has five minutes.
I welcome the Minister. I listened to her contribution, which was very comprehensive, in my office due to the current Covid-19 restrictions in the Chamber. We are 20 months down the line since the start of this pandemic and we will probably be dealing with it for another period, no doubt. I compliment, in particular, the teachers and the staff of the primary and secondary schools and the third level institutions around Ireland in how they have dealt with one of the most horrendous periods of their lives in the past 20 years, from trying to facilitate learning at home right through to the new restrictions in schools and changing leaving certificate practices. We have never before seen a change of work practices in the area of education such as that witnessed in the past 20 months. I acknowledge the degree of dedication on the part of those on the front line when it comes to education.
Significant issues need to be addressed, especially in the area of education. I have four children in primary school. The twins are in junior infants and I have one child in fourth class and one in sixth. Every Monday and Friday, I take the lads to school. This gives me an indication as to what is happening at school level. I see it from going in the gate and ensuring that the twins to have their hands sanitised, which is an ordeal every morning. That kind of engagement starts at the school gate. That is the real engagement that has happened and I want to compliment the staff on it.
From talking to parents and school staff, the big issue that arises relates to the number of days we have lost. From September to the end of December, some students may have lost ten, 15 or 20 days. That is a significant issue when it happens at the start of a school cycle. Over the past 20 months, significant numbers of days have been lost because of the major issues pertaining to Covid-19. How are we going to catch up? How will the school and the education system modify itself to take that on board? I realise that the Minister mentioned schemes and money that will be announced but this concerns nearly the entire class. There will be a gap because of the number of days lost.
I saw this myself in my family where one of the twins got a cough two weeks ago. A Covid-19 test was done and the child was out for three days. The children were fine, thanks be to God, but they have lost days on a continuous basis, whether for colds or the flu, because, in fairness, the teachers and management need to be protected. A significant and comprehensive body of work will have to be done for students, particularly those who have come into the system, in the context of how they can make up for the time they have lost.
The other issue relates to children with needs such as dyslexia or issues pertaining to it. I was talking to a child yesterday who was on a movement break and I was asking her how she is getting on with the mask. She said it was fine but that when she goes out to do a movement break and comes back in, that is when the impact of the mask hits. This was an 11-year-old child I was speaking to. A little bit of give and take is required regarding the wearing of masks. The masks are a great step forward, particularly for the cohort that has been asked to wear them. The majority have bought into it very easily because they have seen it at home and in society but there will be a lead-in time in getting used to the actual proposal that needs to be worked on with the active management of the schools. That will take a little time to bed in. We are living, as one Senator said, in extraordinary times. On foot of that, we are doing extraordinary things. However, this is about ensuring that we can support school management and parents. That is the important thing for every family. They need to get information and support in order to ensure that they can do their bit to keep school settings safe.
I thank Senator Lombard. Before I hand the Chair back to the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I take this opportunity to join others in thanking the Minister for coming here. It is greatly appreciated when the front-line Minister comes to the House. I join colleagues in saying that the Minister is greatly admired for her work. Hers is not an easy task. We know that, and it was clearly shared here today in the context of the various themes that were discussed. I wish the Minister and her officials in the Department continued success.
I will begin by agreeing entirely with my colleague, Senator Boyhan, in welcoming the Minister and in expressing our appreciation of the fact that she is here to answer questions on these very important matters for our colleagues. I invite her to respond to the debate. As per the Order of the House, this debate is scheduled to finish at 2.30 p.m. I ask that the Minister might bear that in mind, but I stress that there is plenty of time available.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I appreciate the opportunity to be here, to listen and to hear the issues and concerns that the Senators have raised. I am a believer in the collective wisdom and I appreciate the value of that in the education sector. It has served us well, and it is for that reason that we have consistently operated within the Department via the partnership in education.
Reference was made to who are the partners in education. These are parents, teachers, managerial bodies and, as Senator Malcolm Byrne in particular mentioned, the student voice. I am very proud to say that since I have become Minister, the student voice representatives and, specifically, second level students, are now very much an integrated part of the consultative body in education. They rightly take their place around the table when discussions and decisions pertaining to education are being made. Most particularly, and it has been raised here, that was the case in respect of senior cycle and moving on towards leaving certificate 2022. They are key members of the advisory group, they were for leaving certificate 2021 and, indeed, for leaving certificate 2020. I thank the Senators for that engagement. I appreciate the fact that the engagement in this Chamber has always been positive and proactive.
Dealing specifically with Senator Malcolm Byrne's contribution, I appreciate very much his positive words on the work, generosity and work ethic of the entire school community. All of those involved have been working collectively in the interests of public health.
The Senator referred to mask-wearing, correctly, as a public health measure that we have been asked to implement. It is an additional measure to all the other tools we are using in schools as infection prevention and control measures, which are many and varied. They range from enhanced cleaning to the provision of personal protection equipment and hand sanitiser, the reconfiguration of spaces and antigen testing. We are cognisant of the fact that no single measure will be sufficient when it comes to tackling the ever-evolving Covid situation in which we find ourselves and recognise that a plethora of measures is required. This is an additional one.
The Senator specifically referred to disadvantage in education. This is an area in which I have a particular interest. In the broad scheme of that, we are aware of the importance of programmes such as DEIS in promoting equality, participation and opportunity in education for all. I am pleased to say that it was a key priority of mine and we delivered on that in the budget. There is now provision to extend the DEIS programme to additional schools. That can only be a positive step for the future. There is an allocation of €18 million for this year and that will rise further in the following year to ensure that the maximum number of schools can become part of the DEIS programme.
Equally, we recognise, and various speakers mentioned it in different contexts, that we are uniquely positioned at this point in terms of disadvantage brought about by the additional impact of Covid. Specific schemes have been introduced this year, such as CLASS. That is a significant investment by the Department. It is a recognition that students have been disadvantaged when they were no on the school campus and not in a position to avail of in-person teaching and learning, notwithstanding the superb efforts that were made by school communities to accommodate remote teaching and learning when the necessity arose. We know from our experience nationally and the experience internationally that, consistently, students are best placed and served when they are in the education setting. CLASS involves more than €52 million being made available to schools to provide an additional teaching resource directly into the schools, and various Senators have referred to the need for that. For example, a primary school with 250 students will now have an additional 15 weeks teaching, while a second level school with 850 students will have far in excess of that with 47 weeks full-time teaching available. That full-time teaching will address, for all, areas of academic teaching and learning. It goes beyond that because there is a recognition that the loss has been in respect of socialisation, well-being and areas of that nature. The vision relating to CLASS is that academic teaching and learning will be complemented by creativity and opportunities for students to engage in fun activities and activities that promote socialisation, integration and reintegration during the Covid pandemic.
The Senator also mentioned learning from Covid. It would not serve us well if we went through a unique and unprecedented experience and did not learn from it. We are learning from it every day. There are certain things we will learn from Covid that really worked well and which we would not have thought could work so well. I say that particularly in respect of technology and all that it has brought to the education sector. Due to the generosity of those who work in the education sector, they have pushed themselves forward individually and collectively as a sector by many years in terms of technology and various other issues. That speaks to the determination of schools to serve students and put them at the centre of all that happens in education. There was a willingness or buy-in, as it were, to reimagine, to pivot in new directions and basically to do what needed to be done to deliver education. I can assure Senators that there will be strong analysis of, and learning from, the Covid pandemic. We hope we will speaking about a post-Covid time as quickly as possible.
I acknowledge the wonderful visit to St. Teresa's mentioned by Senator Dolan, a wonderful and excellent facility, and the positive good news there. Certainly, we are committed to the additional accommodation also. I know it is close to the Senator's heart. I acknowledge the great welcome. It was such a positive visit. It is an excellent example of all that can happen well in the education sector. I said that on the day and I reiterate it here.
I thank the Minister. It was great to have her there.
In terms of the issues regarding the five- to 12-year-olds, we have been told with regard to Covid and public health that there is a particular spike, especially among nine- to 12-year-olds, and that additional measures are required. The Senator specifically referred to contact tracing and the rule for contact tracing. That is a public health and HSE measure. The Department of Education is consistently engaged with public health. As I said in my opening remarks, we have been, and continue to be, guided by public health advice. I would not for a minute expect anybody in the education sector to have the medical expertise so we defer to those who have it. In the context of public health we are deferring to the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET with regard to measures for schools. As regards contact tracing, the public health view was that, at the time, there were thousands of students who were excluded from school for ten days or more after being identified as close contacts. They did not develop Covid-19 or have symptoms of Covid-19, but they were excluded from school for a very long time. That was not sustainable and I think that was the view on the ground as well.
Equally, I wish to reflect on the new measure that public health has indicated as an additional tool, which is antigen testing. The Senators have referred to the timing of introducing antigen testing. Again, that is a public health call, but I will be fair and acknowledge that there has been a variety of views on the effectiveness, appropriateness and timeliness of antigen testing. However, a point was reached recently where the CMO reflected on the evidence, and the more time passes the more evidence becomes available, and it was his expert view that there was a place for antigen testing in schools as an additional tool to all the other tools. It has been operational since Monday. There has been huge buy-in from parents and guardians in that regard. I have heard from parents how effectively the roll-out of antigen testing has been. When they applied to the call centre, they got the tests the following day and so forth. As regards the management of it and future decisions on making antigen tests available on a wider scale, that is very much a public health issue.
Ventilation was raised by a number of Senators. I am very conscious of the need for a wide variety of infection prevention and control measures in schools. We have been very clear about ventilation. Senators referred to the expert group on ventilation. It was the view of that group and others that natural ventilation is the most significant form. As a result, there is of windows and doors, cross-ventilation and so forth. That is very appropriate and guidelines have been issued to that effect. However, there was also a recognition, and there continues to be a recognition, that different schools have different needs, different complexities and different issues when it comes to ventilation.
There is a strong willingness on the part of the Department to engage with schools and to examine what measures are necessary where there might be difficulties. For some schools, that has proven to be in the context of additional vents, windows or whatever the case might be. The willingness has been there and the work is ongoing to carry out mitigation.
The expert group was of the view that CO2 monitors would be helpful, and they were put in place within the school environment. As regards HEPA filtration specifically, it was the view of the expert group that "Stand-alone HEPA filter devices may be useful", but it also stated that "in the longer run, improvements to ventilation should be made to ensure adequate outdoor air ventilation rates are delivered". In other words, there is a two-pronged approach, if you like. In the first instance, the Department considers the necessary remediation that might be required. The requirements of one school may be very different to those of another school. Whatever remediation is identified, a school on the ground can employ a local engineer or architect or it can avail of the technical assistance of the Department, which is also available. Depending on the advice, we will take the remedial action such as the installation of vents or windows, or whatever is required. If the advice is that HEPA filters have a role or a place, they will be supplied. There is an openness to taking on board the advice that is given, implementing it and recognising that no one solution will meet all the individual needs of different schools.
I refer to the substitution panel, the need to grow it and the specific instances raised in that regard. There has been an inordinate willingness on the part of the Department to expand and grow the substitution panels. I wish to be clear on this. Prior to the formation of the Government, 18 teachers were employed nationwide on these substitution panels. We are now in a position where more than 680 teachers have been employed on the panels. These teachers are employed on a full-time basis to provide emergency cover as that need arises in schools. In advance of the reopening of schools this year, we added to those substitution panels. We have added another 300 in recent weeks and we are consistently reviewing particular areas. I repeat that substitution issues are more acute in some areas than in others and, therefore, the distribution of the panel is important. The most recent additions were very much targeted at areas where there are issues and difficulties.
I have already dealt with the issue of DEIS schools. I welcome the roll-out of the hot school meals programme. It does not fall within my remit. It is part of the remit of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys. She is very committed to it, as the Senator will be aware. We do all we can to support her from a cross-departmental point of view in terms of increasing that roll-out. She is incredibly supportive of and committed to that programme.
Have I run out of time?
Does the Minister wish to very quickly deal with a particular issue? I am bound by the order of the House.
Other questions were asked by Senators but the key questions were, most likely, those relating to ventilation and antigen testing. As regards mask-wearing, it is a temporary measure, as I have outlined. It is a public health measure. The greatest reassurance our school communities have received is that we have consistently followed public health advice. We stated very clearly in the guidelines that there is flexibility there. I know schools well. I know school principals and school leadership and I know that they know their students best. There is specific reference to latitude and freedom in the case of children with complex needs, whatever those needs might be, as identified by the parent in collaboration, engagement and discussion with the principal. I am very conscious of that.
This is not the position we want to be in. We do not want to be in Covid in the first place. We do not want to have to change environments in schools but we do so in the best interests of protecting students and allowing and facilitating schools to continue to provide the education on site that they need to provide. There has been enormous generosity and goodwill on the part of parents, guardians and everyone within the school sector to achieve that. As I stated, the rules on mask-wearing are a short-term measure as dictated and enunciated by the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET. It is their recommendation. We are implementing it but, as I stated, there is flexibility there also.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive and wide-ranging response. Any Members wishing to raise further issues can have a private discussion with the Minister as she leaves the Chamber. Knowing the Minister, she will facilitate that. I thank her for how seriously she took the debate, which is very important.