Impact of Covid-19: Education – Return to School and School Transport (Resumed)

We are back in public session and returning to the issue of education provision from September, reopening schools and school transport. In Committee Room 1 from the Irish Primary Principals' Network I welcome Mr. Damian White, president, and Mr. Páiric Clerkin, chief executive officer, and from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals I welcome Mr. Alan Mongey, president, and Mr. Paul Byrne, deputy director.

I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

There has been a certain drift with timekeeping. With the general exception of Sinn Féin speakers everybody else has tended to go over and ask a question in the last seconds available to him or her, which takes a couple of minutes to answer. We do not have time for that this morning. If members wish to ask questions right up to the end of the time available to them, I will be asking that the answer be provided in writing.

Without further ado, I invite Mr. Clerkin to make his opening remarks and I ask him to confine them to five minutes as his statement has been circulated to committee members in advance.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

The Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN, is the professional body for the leaders of Irish primary schools and provides a variety of supports and services to almost 6,500 principals and deputy principals. Since 2001, I have been principal of St. Patrick's national school in Diswellstown, Dublin 15, a mainstream school with 44 staff and almost 800 pupils. I was appointed as chief executive officer of the IPPN in 2017.

As outlined in our submission to the committee, on 13 May the IPPN made a detailed submission to the Department on the reopening of schools. Progress has been made in several aspects of that submission, including the provision of some guidelines and templates and the preparation of training for staff. We were reassured that our recommendation to pause new initiatives and school inspections until at least early 2021 is being implemented. This respects school staff, who must prioritise getting their schools up and running in very changed circumstances.

An important clarification to make is that schools are not reopening as such; school buildings are reopening. Staff and, in particular, school leaders have been working incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances since school buildings were closed on 12 March to facilitate remote learning and do all the other planning that must happen in all schools throughout the year. School leaders will also be working throughout the summer to prepare their schools to welcome back safely the pupils and staff in late August and early September. The language around this is important.

The IPPN has been working closely with our fellow education stakeholders, primarily the management bodies and the INTO but also with education centres and the Professional Development Service for Teachers, to provide a suite of supports relating to remote learning and the reopening of school buildings for summer provision and the new school year.

The IPPN has developed a comprehensive resource bundle, which was submitted to the committee yesterday, and will be available to school leaders. The resource bundle collates all of the guidance, planning and other templates, checklists, frequently asked questions and training materials that have been developed. This will assist schools to develop and implement their plans to ensure a safe return to the school building for all members of their school community. We have committed to keeping this resource updated as further guidance and resources are approved by the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and the Health and Safety Authority.

While there are any number of aspects we could cover today, in the interest of brevity I will highlight the ten key recommendations and challenges that have yet to be fully addressed. The Department of Education and Skills issued guidelines for the reopening of schools on 29 June and the HSE and HPSC interim recommendations for the reopening of schools were issued on 1 July. There is insufficient detail on a number of matters, including the deployment of shared special education teachers within and among schools, school transport, the funding of cleaning and personal protective equipment, additional training and staffing to cover absence.

A critical issue is the need for additional leadership and management time to be provided to teaching principals to flexibly meet the needs of their schools. Simply put, they cannot be expected to teach as well as lead their schools through the reopening phase. To enable schools to manage during the reopening phase, substitute cover is needed for every absence. Schools also need to have flexibility in how they allocate staff to comply with social distancing requirements, including arrangements for shared special education and teachers of English as an additional language who work in multiple classrooms or in multiple schools, while ensuring the most vulnerable children receive the required support.

Additional funding must be provided to schools upfront to enable them to implement the guidelines in full. In addition, the centralised procurement and distribution to all schools of appropriate and sufficient PPE and cleaning materials prior to their full reopening in the autumn would greatly alleviate schools of a significant burden over the summer months. The proposed procurement framework is a positive development but must include PPE as well as sanitiser. This will be critical, especially for special schools and mainstream schools enrolling children with special needs.

Training specific to schools is needed, particularly in supporting children with special educational needs, as specific concerns and issues will pose significant challenges for school staff with regard to intimate care needs. In addition, specific training is required for cleaning staff, staff representatives, compliance officers and school leaders. The training being prepared by the HSA needs to be expanded to address these cohorts.

Special schools face huge challenges in reopening their school buildings in September. They will require additional personnel and PPE as well as very clear guidance and training on the intimate care challenges they will face day to day and funding to support the purchase of extra resources to limit the sharing of materials in or between classes.

School leaders will need support in implementing the safety aspects of reopening as well as in teaching and learning in a much altered environment. "Developing schools", newly amalgamated schools, schools with recently appointed principals and those setting up new special classes in September will all need additional support this year, given all the additional work all schools will have to undertake. Special consideration must also be given to schools undergoing significant repair due to the Western Building Systems issue, where expected completion dates cannot now be met due to the length of the recent lockdown, and school leaders and boards of management are faced with the extra difficult logistics issue of ensuring the safety of pupils and staff in greatly compromised situations. As school inspections have been paused until at least early 2021, the role of inspectors should be temporarily redirected to support schools to get back up and running and to restore normality. However, this must be a collaborative rather than an inspection-based approach.

No school should lose a staff member owing to Covid-19 - for example, a parental decision to keep a child at home or to defer the child's start in junior infants.

School transport will be a significant issue for many schools and particularly challenging for special schools. The HPSC-HSE guidance does not clarify whether distancing on school transport is to be at 1 m or 2 m. There is also the matter of specific guidance for drivers, escorts and pupils availing of school transport, buses as well as taxis. This needs to be urgently clarified.

Centralised communications should be provided to schools and parents to indicate clearly that schools have to balance the safety of the school community with a child's right to an education.

IPPN president, Damian White, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other relevant points further with the committee.

I ask Mr. Mongey for his opening remarks and to confine them to five minutes. Unlike with the previous speaker, I will intervene after five minutes. I am sorry.

Mr. Alan Mongey

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to present to them. I am president of the NAPD, and I am a principal of a school of more than 1,000 pupils. I am joined by Paul Byrne, deputy director of NAPD.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, NAPD has represented post-primary school leaders and supported them in their task of ensuring the continuity of learning and teaching following the closure of schools last March. The association has listened to, supported and engaged with our members remotely through regional online meetings and indeed has seen our highest levels of participation and engagement during the past few months. We were actively involved in supporting the continuity of learning and teaching and in the calculated grades process in our schools. We have been analysing the challenges and seeking to find safe solutions to reopen schools in line with Department of Health and HPSC guidance and the support our members need in this complex process. NAPD would like to see a full return of all students to school in late August to September, provided it is safe, practical and possible to do so for students, all school staff and school leaders.

Post-primary schools vary in size from 100 to more than 1,500 pupils. Each school has its own unique contextual factors that will impact on what a return to school may look like. Schools are extremely complex organisations. Factors adding to the complexity of safe and practical reopening include the building facilities, room numbers, size, age, condition, whether hot water is available, canteen facilities, break time space, etc., staffing, both resourcing and capacity; staff and student health and well-being; the curriculum offered; timetabling; and ICT facilities, to name but a few.

A one-size-fits-all solution to school reopening will not work. However, centralised support, guidance, procurement and direction are essential to reduce the burden which will be placed on school leaders. As it is, it will be them alone who are tasked with leading and managing the reopening of schools.

NAPD acknowledges and welcomes the collaborative approach taken by the Department of Education and Skills with the education partners and the emerging guidelines and protocols for school reopening, most notably last week in relation to the HSPC guidance on school reopening and the draft response plan for primary schools. However, applying this guidance will be extremely challenging in the post-primary school environment. We also welcome the centralised development of policies and procurement frameworks for hygiene supplies and equipment.

To ensure that a response plan for post-primary schools is actionable and achievable a number of things must be actioned urgently. Each school requires the appointment or reallocation of a member of staff to act as a Covid-19 assistant. The workload for school leaders is already acknowledged as being a significant issue. This is supported by research commissioned by NAPD over the past number of years and by European research. School leaders need this support to ensure that their core focus is on ensuring quality teaching and learning.

A financial package is needed to purchase items from the framework and to implement the practices outlined in the HSPC guidance. This includes resources to ensure adequate levels of cleaning and caretaking staff can be employed. The levels of staffing in this area were depleted during our last recession.

The combined response in moving to distance education overnight and without warning needs to be acknowledged. We now, however, have the time to plan for the next academic year. Blended learning for post-primary education will form part of our future practice. There must be clarity, however, as to what we mean by blended learning and what are the expectations of schools in this regard. There must be clear guidance produced by the Department of Education and Skills to ensure equity of provision for all students.

Contrary to popular believe, teachers do not begin work in late August when students first come through the doors of the school. They spend considerable time during the summer months reflecting and planning and preparing for the coming academic year. This year more than any other requires immediate clarity for teachers, students and school leaders in relation to curriculum and assessment. School leaders will have developed timetables for the next academic year which take weeks and sometimes months to prepare. Teachers will be preparing schemes of work and subject plans to prepare students for the year ahead and students and parents of students going into third and sixth year are very concerned about time missed and are already asking about State examinations in 2021. We understand that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the Department of Education and Skills are actively working on this and we request that clarity be provided as a matter of urgency.

In conclusion, I thank committee members for their time today. Please be assured that NAPD is committed to working in partnership with all stakeholders in education towards the safe reopening of schools. Providing the best education for all students in our schools in a safe and caring environment is, as always, our priority. Investment in education, especially at a time like this, is investment in the future of our country.

We are very happy to answer any questions committee members may have.

I welcome the witnesses today and thank them for their time and their opening remarks. I do not think anybody can underestimate the challenges faced by schools. The immediate question facing parents, in particular, in March when the schools closed was how long this was going to last. Ultimately, as it went on longer and longer, the question turned to how this is going to change and how the schools are going to reopen. I welcome the remarks and I heard Mr. Mongey this morning on radio outlining some of the challenges.

I want to put on record my own appreciation for many teachers who have done exemplary work in these challenging times. Mr. Mongey mentioned in his opening remarks the issue of equity for schools. We have to recognise that not every school, not every learner and not every child has the same access, unfortunately, to the equipment required to have what Mr. Mongey termed "blended learning".

Online is no substitute for the classroom and we need to get to the point of flushing out all those issues. The resource bundle dated July of this year includes 194 checks, many of which point to the school leaders looking for supports within the school. I get nervous when I see that because those are 194 reasons not to reopen schools. While I welcome the positive guarded comments about reopening schools, and it is important to start from that position, parents, in particular, want to know how and when it will be done. I speak as a father of three, but having been contacted by countless parents who have been in the position, either trying to work from home or maybe doing shift work from home, of trying to teach their children.

The international evidence shows the continued closure of schools will have an impact on our children. That is why I emphasise the need to reopen, particularly, as I have said, where children do not have access to IT equipment. It is critical that schools reopen. In the view of each of the organisations, what exactly is required to open our schools come September?

Who does the Deputy wish to answer them first?

Mr. Mongey is there on screen, please.

Mr. Alan Mongey

Certainly, at post-primary level, the Deputy mentioned more than 190 checks. From reading the HPSC document, there is a significant level of pre-preparation that needs to be done before we return to school. The month of August is an extremely challenging time for principals any year anyway in preparing for the new academic year. Primarily, what school leaders at post-primary level need is assistance to implement those practices.

We are problem solvers at post-primary level. We look at how we can get schools open. We are not afraid to put our shoulders to the wheel in implementing what has to be done but we require assistance to get it done. Considerable work is required. The documents produced, in terms of the draft return-to-work protocols and the document by the HPSC, clearly outline all of the individual issues that need to be looked at but that requires time. There is not time for principals and deputy principals alone to do that and assistance is required.

In addition, a significant financial package is required for schools. We want to see schools reopen. We want to students back in school. However, I am conscious of the current level of resourcing in schools. I have 1,000 pupils in my school and almost 100 staff. At present, I have one cleaner who is funded through the resources I get from, in my instance, an ETB, and I have to add funding to the pot for cleaning from the capitation grant that I get from the Department to subsidise that. Under the guidelines that are outlined, it is neither feasible nor possible for two cleaners to prepare and clean a school on an ongoing basis. A significant level of resourcing is required for schools in terms of a financial package to recruit additional cleaners. That is required urgently because, with Garda vetting and with the recruitment process that is involved, it takes time to do all of that. We cannot have a case in mid or late August, when, hopefully, these resources are provided to us, that we then begin that process. That needs to happen urgently in the next number of weeks.

Many school leaders will not get a summer break because we are preparing for the return to school. School leaders, and teachers, as the Deputy mentioned, have worked extremely hard during the remote learning when that was in place and a short holiday is needed over the next number of weeks. If we get the resources and clarity urgently, it will lessen the burden on school leaders.

I will ask Mr. Clerkin the same question. I will add to it what Mr. Mongey referred to, namely, the additional cost. Every business that reopened and any entity that has had to reopen to the public incurred additional costs. One would accept that, but there is also a requirement of additional space stated in the roadmap. Mr. Clerkin might touch on it. Certain schools had plans for school extensions that were due to be constructed over the summer months and that did not happen.

Portakabins were also due to arrive, but that may not be happening. I would like the views of the witnesses on those issues.

None of this can happen without funding. Can anyone put a figure on the funding being sought? Mr. Mongey referred to the cleaner, and I heard him speak about that earlier. I do not know how long a school with 1,000 students has had one cleaner. Covid-19 or no Covid-19, that does not seem tenable. Given the costs ultimately associated with all these documents and all the discussions that are happening, what kind of funding are we talking about? I ask Mr. Clerkin to answer those questions, please.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

I will clarify, from a primary school point of view, that we are very cognisant of the views of parents and the anxiety within households. We are planning for the safe and orderly reopening of our schools. We want to see all our children, if possible, back in our schools in September. We must have plans which can be safely and successfully implemented. Those plans must build confidence within the whole school community.

The bottom line is that the school principal will be expected to answer all the questions. There will be anxiety among staff, children and parents. We must build confidence to ensure everybody is signing off the same hymn sheet, understands the objective and understands how we are going to implement these plans safely. We must minimise the possibility of the virus getting into schools. We must look at all the challenges we face from the point of view of ensuring the virus cannot be allowed into schools, because we know that situation will possibly mean a school having to be shut down for a time. That is not something we want to see happen.

We welcome the draft plans, but we know further issues need to be examined. One major issue is finance. Flexibility is key in how we will manage the reopening of schools. We are faced with an enormous challenge for our teaching principals. Our teaching principals cannot be expected to implement the plans required for the safe reopening of schools while teaching full-time at the same time. That is just not reasonable and it is not doable. We will need flexibility regarding substitution. We will also need flexibility in ensuring substitution will be available on day one in the case of all-class substitution or all-class absence. These are issues which must be examined and costed. Our understanding is that the Department has committed to providing the extra funding that will be required to meet the extra costs for cleaning, sanitiser and PPE. We also know that there will be increased costs concerning substitute cover.

When we raised these issues with the Department, we were told they are being discussed with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We do not have any costings regarding those issues, but we know that funding will be required to ensure our schools can be opened safely, our school communities can have full confidence in how we are implementing the plans that are in place and the flexibility that will be required can be implemented successfully. We do not have specific costs, but we know funding is being examined. Substitute cover will be an absolute must to ensure we can provide security for schools to remain open. The same thing applies to the costs concerning cleaning and PPE, etc. We welcome the work the Department has done in putting the procurement framework in place and we will continue to work with it to ensure that is a success.

I thank Mr. Clerkin and Mr. Mongey for their remarks. As long as that can-do attitude can remain, people will be a little bit more at ease with the whole process. I thank the witnesses.

The first speaker from Fine Gael is Deputy O'Dowd, who is taking five minutes.

I worked in a post-primary school that had 1,200 students. I can appreciate the difficulty caused by Covid-19 and how it will be possible to organise things. One of the key points will arise when students are out of class. How will that situation be monitored and that activity supervised? Sometimes one needs to have eyes in the back of one's head to see everything that goes on in a school. People congregating without the knowledge of the school authorities can create problems.

One of the key issues where I noted problems in the past concerned students coming to school on public transport and getting off at a central location. There is a major issue regarding how to then get students into the school building and how they leave again in the evening.

Generally they tend to rush out once the bell goes and if someone is in the way I feel sorry for them. How is that going to be managed? The issue of restriction of classes also arises in this context. If one is a teacher of a subject like Irish or English, one's students will have to stay in their room if at all possible rather than having teachers based in their own rooms. This will involve more movements of teachers rather than students as a way of restricting unnecessary movements in the school.

I will conclude by asking about the involvement of parents in break time supervision. I accept and acknowledge totally the witnesses' concern for principals, vice-principals and other postholders. Unless one gets buy-in from everybody - all of the staff and all of the parents' council - it is not going to work. Could the witnesses comment on those issues?

Mr. Alan Mongey

Congregation is a significant challenge in our schools at all times due to the volume of students within our school buildings. The Irish weather does not lend itself to many students being outside at break times, certainly in September and October. It is going to be extremely challenging.

On school transport, if we start at the beginning of the day as students arrive, significant structures and systems are going to have to be put in place and new routines are going to have be developed within schools. That needs to be done in consultation with transport companies, parents and teachers, etc. All of that is going to take considerable time.

In a way, there is going to have to be a risk assessment carried out of almost all activities that happen in a school from one end of the day to the other. That is why in the context of Covid-19 we are calling for assistance and help for school management during August so we can look at all of those issues and try to develop safe and practical routines to implement the advice and guidance outlined by the HPSC. Potentially we are looking at students arriving on school transport wearing face masks. We need to get to developing those practices and systems and it is going to take a community effort. I have said recently that if parents want students returning to school in September, they must realise that heading off on a foreign holiday to Portugal or Spain is going to challenge significantly the ability of schools to accept those students through their doors at the beginning of September. This is all about trying to keep Covid-19 out of schools and trying to maintain safe, healthy practices within schools.

Schools are going to need additional assistance on an ongoing basis to help with supervision on corridors at break times. Again, there is going to have to be quite a significant education programme created for students upon the return to school. When we return to school at the beginning of September, we will have to deal with all of the issues around student health, well-being and anxiety that have developed over the last number of months, for example among examination students leading into examination years. The development of routines in school, for example with regard to entry and exit from classrooms, needs to be looked at and managed. As these are new practices, there will have to be significant buy-in from all of the partners.

Post-primary schools are extremely complex. It is extremely challenging for students to remain in classrooms, and in pods within classrooms, in post-primary schools. First year and transition year allow for a certain amount of flexibility because there does not tend to be significant movement. Where there are optional subjects in second, third, fifth and sixth year, and where there are higher and ordinary level classes in subjects like maths, English and Irish, no two class groups are the same. In a school like ours, it would be rare to have 24 of the same students together with a number of teachers. That is an extremely challenging environment.

If we look at physical distancing, we need to look at trying to increase separation within classrooms and at decreasing all of the interactions between students on an ongoing basis. That is going to be extremely challenging. Everyone will have to play their part in that regard, including teachers on corridors as students move between classrooms. We are going to have to develop practices within schools to look at how we can assist with that physical interaction in a way that minimises it.

Post-primary schools are going to find it extremely challenging to implement, which is why significant resourcing will be required in schools to maintain that. All of us want our students back. Schools need it and society needs it. If we move to blended distance learning week-on, week-off, that is going to cost a significant amount to the economy where parents cannot return to work because they have to look after and assist children at home. We either invest in ensuring schools can return in September or the option in we look at in terms of blended learning will have multiple and significant costs for society.

I refer to staggered school hours where one might start at 8.30 a.m. or 9 a.m. but would continue with that so that some students might not come in until 11 a.m. or 12 noon. They would have a longer day and go home at a different time. It is a major challenge. Has Mr. Mongey thought about that?

I presume the principal signs off on the plan but that every plan would have to be verified independently of the school. Ultimately, Mr. Mongey is responsible as a principal for anything that happens, and, therefore, he needs to have verification of his plan. He is ultimately accountable. Is that not the other side? If he does not have the resources to act fully accountably, he cannot do his job.

Mr. Alan Mongey

School leaders have absolutely no problem in being held to that level of accountability. We shoulder that on a daily basis in any other year. The Deputy is correct that we need to be given the resources to meet that level of accountability. Policies, etc., are being developed centrally by the education partners, including the Department, but their implementation is going to be challenging and significant in schools and we need all the support we can get in that regard.

What about the question of the staggered or expanded school day?

Mr. Alan Mongey

That has huge implications. At post-primary level, it has huge implications for curriculum and assessment. If we are talking about staggered school days and students being at home for 50% of the time, do we cut the curriculum by 50%? I do not think any teacher or student believes that is a realistic option. A full return to school is what we are all aiming for. If one looks at staggered school days and some students being at home, there are a number of options. The curriculum and the assessment requirements on students must be significantly cut, particularly for examination years, or a system of blended learning development that has never been seen before. It needs to be equitable for every student in the country to make sure every student is provided with the same standard of education. The investment that would be required for that would be astronomical.

I want to go back to the point I made about out-of-class activities. When a teacher is in the class, that is fine. However, when the students go outside, generally a small number of teachers supervise even a thousand students. Can Mr. Mongey quantify that? I acknowledge each school has a different physical environment,

but an awful lot of-----

Mr. Alan Mongey

Significant supervision is required, and I will go back to the Irish weather. It is quite easy on bright sunny days when students are out on the playing fields, if one is lucky enough to have playing fields in one's school. However, on wet, windy, cold days when every student is squeezed into corridors and classrooms right around the school, social distancing will be significantly challenged. We need to look at what mitigation measures can be put in place in schools to assist in that regard to make sure the environment is safe and secure for students, teachers and staff.

That is why significant investment is required. Significant supervision is needed. The vast majority of students are well behaved and will follow the guidelines and ask what they should do, but teenagers are teenagers and young people are young people, and they continue to push the boundaries, even at home, not just in schools. A huge amount of support is going to be required in terms of supervision at lunchtime. That is just from a post-primary perspective. Perhaps primary schools might have an additional perspective on it.

I call an Teachta Ó Laoghaire.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na cainteoirí as a bheith linn tráthnóna. It seems to me there is a strong message from both presentations that the objective is, and should be, the full return of education in school buildings.

I welcome that. I have been saying for some time that this should be priority, and it is the priority of most people involved in education. This reflects a widely held attitude that, while there are undoubtedly obstacles to be overcome, this is a valuable objective because, despite everyone's best efforts, there is no question but that many children, particularly those in most need, have lost out due to the lack of time in school. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of ill-informed critical commentary from people in the media regarding teachers, school staff and principals. This is regrettable. It is the objective of everyone involved in schools to deliver a full return to schools.

I will start with a simple question. I ask Mr. Clerkin and Mr. Mongey whether it is deliverable.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

We are completely focused on devising and implementing a plan that will ensure this objective is doable. That is why the stakeholders within the education sector have been working on an ongoing basis, combining their strength and working together to ensure it can be done. I am talking about the management bodies, professional associations such as our own, the unions, our education centres and many of our school leaders. These have all been working together to come up with solutions to the different challenges schools will face. That is why we have a resource bundle. It is a live document, which is updated daily and weekly to ensure that, as these challenges are overcome, there is a draft plan that can be implemented in every county.

I am sorry; I am very conscious of the time. I will take Mr. Clerkin's answer as a "Yes". I am aware of the resource bundle. I have looked at it. It is an excellent resource. Will Mr. Mongey briefly address that same question? Does he believe this is doable? I may then move on to some other questions. I ask him to be as brief as he can. I apologise.

Mr. Alan Mongey

Yes, it is doable, provided the resources are provided to schools to action the plans we have all made.

My next question is crucial and relates to space. We have some of the largest class sizes in Europe. I believe they are the largest in the EU at the moment. I address the following question to both representatives. There is to be social distancing and 1 m between children from third class upwards. If all children are to return to school together, there are two possibilities; either this social distancing will not have to be applied or additional space will have to be provided. Which route is being pursued? On what basis are the organisations preparing? If it is the approach of additional space, are schools actively seeking such space at this point? How do the witnesses see this objective being delivered in line with public health guidance? Mr. Mongey might respond first.

Mr. Alan Mongey

It will be extremely challenging if we are to follow the rules with regard to 1 m and 2 m. We have done some work on classroom sizes and between 24 and 26 students can be accommodated in a classroom of 47 sq. m such as is found in a normal brand new school building, provided much of the fixed furniture is taken out and very little movement is allowed. Many of our post-primary schools, however, have classes of 30 students. It will, therefore, be challenging. Should we plan in the hope that the 1 m restriction is slightly altered? What can be implemented in schools where social distancing is not possible in every single classroom? What can we do in such classrooms to allow all students to enter the room? We have additional and significant challenges in cases where one or two special SNAs are present in a classroom containing 30 students and a teacher. All of a sudden, there are 31 or 32 people in the class. That is challenging. As I have said, however, we are committed to working with all the partners Mr. Clerkin has mentioned to come up with solutions in that regard. In respect of the timeframe involved, there are only seven and half or eight weeks until the beginning of the new school year. It is not possible to provide additional prefabs for schools, certainly in post-primary schools, in such a short period.

We will certainly utilise every space available within a school that has significantly larger class sizes but that may require additional resources such as additional seating or desks, etc. around the school. There urgently needs to be a significant audit of schools to determine their individual capacities to see how we can meet these requirements. That is why-----

While Mr. Clerkin is addressing the question on space and social distancing, I might ask him another question. He said a good deal in his commentary about PPE and the cost of same. What kind of PPE does he anticipate might be needed? There are educational issues with some forms of PPE such as masks because facial expressions are important for children, especially children with special educational needs. Are we talking about plastic partitions or visors, for example, or is it just gloves? What kind of PPE does Mr. Clerkin have in mind when he refers to the additional costs involved with that? He might also address the issue of space. I ask him to address those issues within a minute or so because I have one more question.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

Space is an issue and the size of classes is an issue. We have extremely large classes and I note the Minister’s comments on this issue. There is a complication for our third class to sixth class children if we are to implement the 1 m rule. Our plans are based on the contingency whereby we are looking at the class bubble and pods within the classroom and those pods would need to implement social distancing of 1 m between pods. If the medical guidance-----

I want to hop in with a supplementary question. How many children will be in a pod?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

That has not been clarified yet. Those issues are still being discussed. There is no absolute clarity on that and that is something we are seeking clarity on, as well as on the medical evidence and advice on those issues because, as I pointed to at the beginning, this is about building confidence and ensuring everybody has confidence in the plan that is to be implemented. We will seek clarity on that issue but that is the plan we are working on. If that is not possible, we will have to go back to the drawing board to see what plan can be implemented to ensure the maximum number of children in third class to sixth class return.

On PPE, we want the framework to be put in place and for the flexibility to be there that when there is medical advice to say a school needs certain equipment, that it would be available to the school, that the school will have the funding in place to be able to resource such equipment and that this will not be a burden that will come back on our parents. In many of our schools we are having to look for voluntary contributions to pay for the basics. We do not want that to be an issue for any school in this situation.

I agree with that and that is an important point. Refuse costs, for example, could increase so that also needs to be considered. Mr. Clerkin does not have any specific idea in mind on what kind of PPE might be required. He is just anticipating that if there is a requirement from public health guidelines for PPE then that would be covered. Am I understanding him correctly?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

We have been given the advice that very little PPE will be required but that in some situations it may be required. In such cases it could be masks or visors. We just want to ensure that what is required, especially by our special schools or special classes, would be made available.

I have a concern about children who could drift from the education system. In terms of monitoring, we have the educational welfare service but the monitoring of children attending school will become difficult because there will be increased absences, perhaps because children have symptoms or because a parent or child is immunocompromised. Is Mr. Clerkin concerned about this issue and how should we tackle it? Should we consider increased provision of home school community liaison officers? What measure should we take to try to tackle this?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

This is another important issue. I noted the Deputy’s comment that teachers and school leaders have been working extremely hard since the school buildings were closed. An awful lot of that work was unseen. They worked to try to keep these vulnerable children engaged with the education system. That meant one-to-one interaction in some cases where it was possible to do so. That interaction involved making contact to families and calling to families and they were constantly on the phone to ensure it was possible to keep those vulnerable children engaged with the education system. That work has been a priority for all of the schools. This will be a challenge when we return to school.

There will need to be a focus to ensure that at we have the resources in place through our dedicated teachers and special educational needs teachers so that we can give the support required to these children. The flexibility I have spoken about is required to ensure that we can do that.

I am keen to acknowledge the extraordinary work that is being done by school leaders. The principal in my local school has told me that even though he is wandering empty corridors, he has never been as busy as he has been this year. All of this is unseen work and it deserves to be acknowledged. The same is true of the engagement, especially by SEN teams to which Mr. Clerkin alluded, to keep these most vulnerable children in contact with schools. It has been highly valuable work and mostly unseen. It deserves to be acknowledged.

I am going to dig into a couple of issues, especially in respect of attendance. I will aim this mainly at primary school level so perhaps Mr. White and Mr. Clerkin will want to speak to this. I have a number of questions. The first relates to the primary online database returns, which have to be submitted on 30 September. Mr. Clerkin addressed this in his opening comments. We know that the staffing for August 2021 will be decided on the returns for 30 September this year. In all likelihood there will be reduced admissions to junior infants this year as parents hold on to their children. Has the IPPN been given any clarity on whether there will be staffing implications? As I said, in all likelihood the cohort of junior infants who are held over will lead to larger classes in 2021.

On the same topic, has the IPPN received any guidance on changing the guidelines for NEWB notifications? Normally notifications have to go out to parents after 20 days of absence. Has this been changed or relaxed in any shape or form? Circular 0028/2013 relates to an absence of 20 consecutive days and provides for a child being struck off the roll. Parents whose children might be immunocompromised may decide to keep the children at home for a longer period. Has the IPPN received any guidance or clarification from the Department on those attendance issues?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

We have not had guidance or clarity but these are issues we have raised with the Department and they are issues we are highly concerned about. Obviously the 30 September returns are relevant because staffing for the next school year is based on them. It is even more serious for a developing school or a new school because the staffing of that school for that particular year will be based on having the numbers on 30 September. We have asked for absolute flexibility in respect of this issue. There needs to be a pragmatic approach. It cannot be a blunt instrument whereby if a school is down by one, it loses a teacher. The school will still have children in the class who have to be taught. I expect that these issues will be clarified by the Department and that the Department will give the required flexibility, especially in respect of the new and developing schools that will need its support. It is likely that the numbers expected may not appear on 1 September and might not be there on 30 September.

The Deputy asked about the NEWB guidance on 20 days. Our approach is always to support children and their attendance at school. It is about problem solving and how we can support them to get back into the school. We do not look at it in terms of being struck off. That is an operational issue in respect of the roll book. The child’s place is available and we try to get them back into school as soon as possible. We work with the attendance officers and NEWB to try to give every support to the family and child to get the child into school as soon as possible.

We are going to have to work together on all these issues, especially with our vulnerable children, to ensure that the children remain engaged with schools and that we can get them back into school as soon as possible. Flexibility will be the key to ensure that we can operate schools properly and successfully in September.

I have a question about blended learning and how it is being rolled out. How well supported do principals feel? The closures happened at short notice and staff started using Seesaw, Edmodo or Kidblog or any number of these resources. Does the IPPN believe that continuing professional development is being well catered for in summer courses? Will the staff be in a good position to take advantage of these?

Has it been standardised across the various school offerings?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

The Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, gives great support to schools with these issues. What happened in schools in March and April was somewhat revolutionary. Over a three-week period, they moved from face-to-face interaction to a blended online learning platform.

The primary school setting is complicated. Working with infants is very different from working with fifth or sixth class pupils, for example, so challenges arise. Schools and teachers have upskilled over a short period and delivered a successful programme to children. From a primary school point of view, however, it is critical that we get children back into school. We cannot replace the face-to-face interaction that happens at school level. The blended online approach is a second class model as far as we are concerned. We need to get children back into school.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I have two main questions, the first of which relates to second level and is something that I raise as often as possible. School principals of disadvantaged schools say that they are concerned about a lost generation of young people who are now over 16 years of age, have no legal requirement to be in school and, therefore, might not return in September. They are young people whom schools have worked hard to keep in the system, but they have now been out of the system for approximately four months. There is a worry that there has been no recognition of how dangerous a situation we are facing in terms of a cohort of vulnerable young people who will not return in September. Will the witnesses speak about what we can do to help?

Second, we have constantly stated our position that, without a major financial package that includes funding for staff, schools cannot open in September. As the witnesses know, we have overcrowded and underfunded schools. There is a suspicion or fear that some of the actual costs will fall on school management bodies, principals and the fundraising capacity of schools, which would not be fair at all.

In terms of staffing and potentially bringing retired teachers back into the classroom, do the witnesses agree that a major financial package is needed, and should it have happened by now, in order to ensure that the pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary school classrooms are reduced? What is lost in all of this is that, the first time many teachers stand in front of a class, they are worried about being able to control and manage the class. In a situation where there is social distancing, how can a teacher do that effectively?

Those are my two questions, that is, on the vulnerability of those who might not return to the system and what the witnesses believe the political system can do to address that, as well as on the staffing that will be needed in September. Young people returning in September will have been out of the system for more than five months. I know from my own experience that dealing with a child who has been out of the system for two months is a challenge, and that is without there being a pandemic or social distancing considerations. I would appreciate it if the witnesses spoke to these two questions.

Mr. Alan Mongey

It is a concern at second level, particularly as it relates to 15 and 16 year olds who have not been in school and are probably most at risk of dropping out post junior certificate. Schools have worked hard over the months of March, April and May, however. In my instance, our school guidance counsellors were in weekly, and almost daily, contact ringing and speaking to students to try to encourage them to stay engaged and motivated. It was a significant challenge, and ensuring that they return, come September, will be an even greater challenge.

We do this every year. A part of the work that principals and deputy principals do during August is touching base with our schools' most vulnerable students to ensure that they are ready and capable of returning to school. That is why additional assistance is required at that time and we will be seeking help in this regard to ensure that we have the resources and capacity to meet or make contact with all of those students. Schools that have home-school community liaison officers are in a lucky position.

They, however, generally do not start until the very end of August so additional help, support and assistance with regard to staffing will be required during the month of August to ensure we get the most vulnerable students back in. A lot of that, as Mr. Clerkin has said, will come down to building confidence in the system and ensuring people are confident that it is a safe environment for students to return to, that they will be looked after and that it is worthwhile to return to school. A huge amount of time and effort goes into that. I share the Deputy's concerns about those students.

Significant additional staffing is required in schools. Prior to Covid-19, there was a reduction in guidance counsellor provision for post-primary schools. This is an invaluable resource to have within schools. My school has an allocation of approximately 1.6 guidance counsellor posts for more than 1,000 pupils. This allocation is expected to cater for the personal development needs and vocational counselling needs of these students. We allocate additional staffing, however, so at present we have 2.5 people involved in this area. That, however, impacts upon class size. That is why we have increased class sizes at post-primary level. School leaders and schools are aware of the importance of having those resources within schools. When these resources were cut, schools reallocated resources in that regard. Not every school, however, is in a position to do that.

I ask Mr. Mongey to conclude.

Mr. Alan Mongey

Significant additional resources are required to support and ensure care of students when they return to school.

Mr. Mongey may provide a further reply in writing. Deputy Ó Ríordáin may come back in at the end if there is time.

I thank the witnesses. I have three questions or themes the witnesses might speak to or elaborate on. I will ask about morale, resources and guidelines. I am very concerned about morale in the wider school community as it heads back in September. The presentations have rightly pointed out that no teacher has been off for the last six months. In fact, they have been working extremely hard, as have school leaders. My friends and those I know who are teachers are tired and now they are coming in for criticism. For the first time, they are going back to a school environment in which they do not know what their role will be. I am concerned about the morale of teachers and the implications it might have further on into autumn. Are the witnesses concerned about that? What sort of well-being supports are needed for teachers? Are the witnesses concerned about increased levels of sick leave? Should we be factoring that into our considerations?

I will also ask about resources. I have asked the previous Minister and Department officials about things like the digital divide several times. A few months ago, I was told that money was being reallocated but this turned out to be just an accelerated delivery of money that had already been allocated. Last week, I asked a Department official about cleaning staff. I asked how many cleaning staff the Department will hire. I was told that, while the Department does not hire such staff, it does provide funding to hire them and that schools will need more. That funding cannot, however, be provided retrospectively. The money will need to be in schools' accounts by late August.

I also wish to ask about the guidelines. They are just confusing. They are filled with contradictions. For example, schools have the right to refuse students with temperatures but they are not required to take temperatures. I think about the first morning in September when all the schoolchildren will come flooding through the front door and into their classrooms. Who will be there to ensure students are sanitising their hands? The idea of Covid leaders has rightly been mentioned. Who are these Covid leaders? Who should they be? I understand that the organisations represented here do not create the guidelines, but do the representatives believe this role should be filled by special needs assistants, school secretaries or teachers? In the absence of clear guidelines, is there potential for conflict within the wider school community in September?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

As regards morale, we are concerned. It will be a focus for schools. The Department and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, have assured us and committed to providing supports to ensure we can address that issue with the whole school community, including teachers, schoolchildren, school leaders and parents. It is an issue which must be addressed. The starting point in all of this is the point made earlier regarding building confidence in the system. If we want to raise morale, we must ensure we have a plan which can be implemented and in which people have confidence. Appropriate training must be provided and everybody must understand their role and how they are going to carry it out successfully. That is the starting point. We must build confidence which, in turn, will build morale.

The one thing we will have to do when we go back in September is ensure we focus on that and support each other. Having an attitude that we must cover the six months that have been lost would be the wrong approach for us to take. It is about dealing with the challenges that we have now in supporting individuals and children, and giving the vulnerable children the supports that they will require. We must gradually help and support children to re-engage with school, and then the learning will take off from there.

The guidelines are a work in progress and many issues require clarity. Again, that clarity must come from the HSE. We need the medical guidance and facts that can back up that the plans we are putting in place will be safe. On temperature taking and all of those things, there needs to be absolute clarity on how those will be managed. What will ensure success is if the whole school community works together, that we are all vigilant and that parents are given the training they require to ensure they will not send their children into school and know when not to send children into school.

In terms of resources, there is a critical thing for us in primary schools. We need a panel of substitute teachers and substitute SNAs to ensure that every single classroom has a teacher. The very basic that any child should expect is that they have a teacher in his or her classroom on a daily basis. One cannot have a classroom of junior or senior enfants without a teacher. At the moment the first day of absence, in many situations, is not covered by a substitute, which must be addressed. We must have a panel of substitutes that we can call on to ensure that we will have the cover in place. We also need cover and a panel for SNAs. The vetting of SNAs is complicated because they must be vetted in every single school in which they work. We need a centralised process whereby SNAs can be vetted centrally and, therefore, have substitute SNAs available to schools across the education system so that we have the supports in place for our children with special educational needs.

Connection is key; that is what schools have been and will continue to be focused on as it is very important going forward.

I ask that Mr. Clerkin puts his response to Deputy Gannon's question in writing. I call Deputy Kenny.

I thank all of the speakers for their contributions. All indications point to there being extreme challenges for teachers, students and those who will be in the educational system in September. The classroom will look very different in September from what it did in March. Safety for all is paramount. When one considers all of the mitigating circumstances, over the past six months Covid has shown us that there are major faultlines in the public services regarding health, education and so forth but particularly education because of the teacher:student ratio. In those circumstances the school classroom will look very different come September, if not completely different under the guidelines. What is needed is what was needed in the health service at the beginning of March and April when we had a Be on Call for Ireland for health staff coming back from abroad. We also had recruitment freezes and new teachers entering the education system. Resources are needed to meet the huge challenges facing the education system. Obviously everybody wants more resources, but do we need an Be on Call for Ireland part II for the education system?

School secretaries play a huge role in the education system but 90% of them are not recognised as public servants, which is incredible. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on the call for more resources. We need a call to arms to make the education system functional and safe for everybody. We also need to put in the resources because, if not, the classroom will be unable to function.

Mr. Damian White

From the primary end, the Deputy is right that this episode has shown up some of the major fault lines that exist. Nobody could have expected that Covid would hit in the way that it did. When we closed on 12 March we expected it would be a two-week closure and that everything would return to normal but far from normal it has been. One is looking at how classrooms and schools will look in September and what needs to happen. Speakers have already outlined the amount of investment that needs to happen. There has to be a serious re-examination of what is needed and how much is needed. We call for a substantial investment. As Mr. Clerkin and Mr. Mongey outlined, there are resources that are basic to this particular issue and also resources that are basic to education going forward.

Looking at classrooms, at primary level, we do not know whether it will be 2 m. A distance of 1 m has been suggested for all students above second class. That is a huge issue because many classrooms, and certainly in small schools and country schools, are less than 50 sq. m so when one does the maths one soon realises that it will be very difficult to fit in people. Every school is working as resourcefully as humanly possible and people are putting a lot of thought into this matter. Through our own organisation we are trying to support them in every way that we can.

It is our sincere hope that we get back to school in September. I was in a school the other day where all of the furniture had been moved out to make every space available. Where isolation units are needed, the reality in some schools is that corridors are not 1 m wide and, therefore, a corner of a corridor or toilet area may be an isolation unit, or something that is probably not appropriate except in extreme emergencies. There are many issues. Investment is seriously needed but investment in people would be a start. Our schools would be well supported or certainly a lot better supported if we knew that we had extra personnel, that teaching principals had the flexibility that they need, and that they would not have teaching duties for the month of September, if possible.

If Mr. White or any of the other witnesses wish to provide further answers to Deputy Kenny, I ask that they do so in writing. I call Deputy Shanahan and he has five minutes.

The schools are talking about implementing the infectious control protocols. Have any of the organisations present taken a head count of the teachers who may, potentially, have underlying health issues and thus excuse themselves from teaching duties, particularly in the case of a resurgence of Covid?

Mr. Alan Mongey

In terms of post-primary level, at this stage there has been no staff survey. The Department of Education and Skills should conduct a survey to ascertain the level and need in order to support teachers who may not be in a position to return to work.

The evidence suggests that the risk of infection from children in primary schools is probably far less than in post-primary. Does that feed into staff planning? I suggest that it should.

Will the infectious control financial support that has been mentioned be managed by the school or is it a case that one logs on to the Department's dashboard to order whatever one wants?

Mr. Alan Mongey

I might pass the question to my colleague.

Mr. Paul Byrne

We would hope for a central process and that the application would be made to the Department for the hand sanitisation equipment, which would then be delivered to schools.

We hope it would be a centralised system, bearing in mind that a lot of different hand sanitisation stations will be required. The recommendations suggest that we would have hand sanitisation stations at the entrance to each classroom. In the mornings, when there is a high volume of students, as in Mr. Mongey's example of 1,000 students going into a school, about ten to 12 hand sanitisation stations will probably be needed at each entrance into the school because it cannot be planned what time the buses will arrive. I know that in some rural schools, buses arrive as early as 8.15 a.m. because some buses do double runs. They do a post-primary school run first and then they do a primary school run. The other issue is that we will need to have a level of supervision in the mornings that we might not have had before, which will be an additional requirement on resources. We will have to create a new system for the students to enter the school in the morning. We will have to get them into a process whereby hand sanitisation becomes second nature to them as they come in. We hope the supply will be done centrally.

I want to suggest to the schools that the issue of procurement should be handled by the schools themselves. There are many local companies adjacent to all of our schools that would be more than happy to provide contracts. I am aware of public sector procurement issues such as this in some of our residential settings where the costs being paid are far in excess of what can be dealt for locally. The procurement issue for schools would be far easier if goods were sourced locally.

On the issue of school transport, I know the Department is engaged to a degree with Bus Éireann, which handles most of the public service obligation contracts for school transport, aside from the special needs schools. Are any of the organisations represented today engaging with any of the transport companies to understand how they will meet their social distancing requirements and how they will continue to provide a service to schools?

Mr. Damian White

With respect, I disagree with the Deputy on the procurement issue because schools and school principals, particularly teaching principals, are inundated with work. They have a volume of work, even without this crisis, that is unacceptable in the modern age. Any support we can get centrally would be welcome and necessary. That does not mean goods cannot be procured from local companies and that better local deals cannot be had. We should by all means go for that but we need to have support centrally.

As recently as yesterday, I was talking to a bus operator and we went through all of the issues that are concerning the bus companies. These issues include the number of people they can safely carry on buses; the number of schools they are servicing with one bus on one morning or evening; the significant cost of cleaning, which is not factored into what they are getting from the authorities that are handing out the contracts; the loading of buses on and off as there is talk about filling buses from the back-----

I ask Mr. White and the other witnesses who have any further reply for Deputy Shanahan to provide that to him in writing.

I have a number of questions and I would appreciate it if the witnesses could take them down because one question might fit into another in a response. I have been talking to school principals, parents associations and boards of management. As I am on a board of management, I know that boards are finding it difficult to get answers to many of the questions that are being asked. The witnesses may have been liaising with the Department to see if they can get answers on the capitation grant, especially for the rural schools, including those in west Cork. Will that grant be raised in some way going forward? Will there be a new specific cleaning grant? Some schools are only being cleaned twice or three times per week.

In this situation it is serious because these schools will have to put forward further and stronger cleaning programmes. Obviously, the secretaries have always been the forgotten heroes in the school. What is the assistance in respect of secretaries? Will this change?

Childhood is short. Children only get one chance at an education. Students of primary and secondary education need to return to school in September. Blended learning is not an ideal situation. The suggestion of a two and a half day school week is simply unworkable for the majority of families. We need only look at what happened to our front-line workers. They had to use up their holidays and days off to take care of the people of Ireland. If both parents are front-line workers, then most of their holidays are gone. There were no crèches because of Covid-19 and no other family members were allowed to care for the children. No grandparents were allowed to care for the children because of Covid-19. We need to get our children back to school in the safest possible manner.

Has the Department liaised with school principals on plans for students sitting the junior and leaving certificate examinations in 2021? Almost certainly they will not get the same education as students who sat the exams in previous years or as students should get in normal years. They will be starting out at a disadvantage, especially by missing most of the second half of this year. Is there any plan in place for students? Can the school principals elaborate on this?

Has any plan been put in place for boarding schools? Is boarding still a service that can be offered? Have the relevant schools been given a roadmap for reopening? Are there different plans for boarding students? Some students board for five days and go home to their families at the weekend. Others board for seven nights and only go home for mid-term or during the school holidays.

As part of the junior certificate for 2021 students were supposed to complete their classroom based assessment for this year. However, because of Covid-19 they could not. Is some procedure being put in place for these students to complete their classroom based assessments? They are not supposed to do these assessments at home or through distance or online learning. I would appreciate if school principals could answer some or all of these questions.

If witnesses go over three minutes they should provide an additional responses in writing.

Mr. Alan Mongey

I will deal with the junior and leaving certificate quickly. The NCCA and the Department are in consultation at the moment in preparing advice to the working group on school return in respect of the implications of junior and leaving certificate students. We are asking for clarity to be brought sooner rather than later. We hope that would come before the end of the month or early August so that schools can plan as well as support and lessen the anxiety for junior and leaving certificate students. There will have to be amendments to curriculum or assessment for those students.

Deputy Collins asked about classroom based assessments. Amendments have been made. There is no longer a requirement for student to sit a CBA 1 and CBA 2 in subjects in the junior cycle. They now only have to complete one classroom based assessment. They can choose a CBA of their choice. Additional difficulties will present for assessment tasks that were traditionally linked to one particular CBA. Maybe that is a conversation for another day. Hopefully we will see the removal of assessment tasks within schools to lessen the burden on schools. I do not think these would be missed if they were taken away from the junior cycle.

There is an annual process under which we go to the Department looking for increased capitation grants. Certainly, this year more than any other year we will need increased capitation for cleaning and secretarial work. The school does not function unless it has a really good secretary and we all have really good secretaries. Any additional grants that can be supplied to schools would be greatly appreciated.

Deputy O’Sullivan is speaking for ten minutes as there is no other Fianna Fáil speaker. Is that correct?

I will not take ten minutes but it is nice to have some relaxed time and not be under pressure from the clock. The reason I will not take the ten minutes is that I want to focus on one aspect. Many of the other aspects have already been covered. The aspect I am keen to focus on is the school transport scheme. The existing school transport scheme is not fit for purpose. Clearly this will be exacerbated by social distancing requirements. I will give the committee an example of what has been happening with the existing school transport scheme, even without the current restrictions.

In my constituency of Cork South-West, most of the population of the Ballineen and Enniskean area attend secondary school in the nearby town of Bandon. Last year, 18 secondary school pupils were left without places on the school bus. It happened under the structures of the existing school transport scheme and was a disaster. The witnesses can imagine the concern among parents, guardians and the students themselves. Some really sad cases arose because of the situation. It led to a further issue that is not part of this committee's remit, namely, traffic chaos in the town of Bandon owing to extra vehicles on the road because school transport could not cater for students.

I note that it has been relayed that, following a principal's discussions with Bus Éireann, it is understood that more than double the current capacity would be required to adhere to social distancing. As the witnesses can see from my example, we are already running over capacity. This will be a major problem, and I would love to hear the witnesses' thoughts on the matter. Will we see increased capacity? The report mentions at least double the capacity, but clearly we need more than that. Each and every Deputy is receiving emails and calls from concerned guardians and parents about the future of school transport and whether their children will be accommodated. It was not only concessionary students who were left out last year. Even those who qualified for non-concessionary places were, too.

There is no need for me to speak further, as this is the element on which I want to focus. I thank the Chairman for his indulgence. I would like a detailed response as to whether the current capacity will be increased. There are many experienced heads in the committee room. Can they think of any potential solution that we could examine to address this issue?

Mr. Damian White

I thank the Deputy for his question. School transport is something that every school principal has a concern about. We all echo the Deputy's call for more places and his comments on the difficulties faced in getting pupils to school, for example, finding places on buses. This is an issue around the country where second level education is provided for pupils from small, outlying schools in their local reasonably sized towns.

The Deputy asked about doubling the transport capacity. I spoke to an operator yesterday. He simply told me that he did not know whether the "stuff" was there. He was talking about the buses to service that need. Operators also face the issue of ensuring there is proper social distancing on their buses. Many bus drivers who are on school runs are older people and it would be difficult for them to supervise and ensure that social distancing is observed on buses. This is particularly the case with young children, some of whom would be travelling on buses for the first time. One of the operators' suggested solutions is for there to be an escort on every bus to ensure proper social distancing. That would be helpful.

I hope that, by September, there will be greater clarity about how many children can travel. We need it as soon as possible. Everything depends on the spread of the virus, but if the current trajectory is maintained, we hope that there will be the capacity on buses for a greater number of students and that, where a need is identified in individual cases, extra school buses will be put on. It must happen. This is one of the costs that would be addressed by the substantial investment package that we mentioned, and we would strongly encourage it being done.

I appreciate the response and some of those words are encouraging. I am concerned that providers share concerns that the "stuff" is not there, or the buses simply are not there. That could prove to be a huge issue if we are looking at double the capacity. The idea of a bus escort is very welcome, but I reiterate that we need to plan for this now. If we stay on the current trajectory, the greater social distancing requirements may no longer be required and we may be able to accommodate more students but we have to keep the possibility of a second wave in the back of our minds. We need to plan for this and make sure we do not have a repeat of what happened in Ballineen and Enniskean in 2019 where so many children were left without places.

I will finish on something slightly unrelated to Covid. In the light of our climate action aims, targets and goals, this really is the route we need to go down with school transport. The more students we can provide for, the less traffic on our roads and the less risk of a repetition of the traffic congestion we saw last year in the town of Bandon.

Deputy Colm Burke has ten minutes.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and thank all the teachers, both primary and secondary, for their contribution and hard work over the past three to four months. It has been a very difficult time for everyone and particularly for teachers.

I want to touch on the issue of substitute cover raised by Mr. Clerkin. I presume there is a panel of people available at the present to provide substitute cover. If there is, what kind of numbers do we have on that? How many additional people do we need to place on that panel to cover for teachers who are out either through illness or family circumstances?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

A pilot scheme has been in place over the past year to examine this issue. It was in place a number of years ago. One of the objectives is to try to retain our younger teachers in the country, especially those who might not have been able to secure a temporary position for the full year, or indeed a permanent position. If we are asking them to take up positions, especially in urban areas, we need to give them some form of security and one of the means of doing that is to place them on the panel and give them a temporary contract for the year. The scheme in place over the past year has worked very successfully and there has been no wastage associated with it. Conditions have moved on since it was last in place in that we now have systems such as EducationPosts.ie and Sub Seeker where ourselves and National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, are working together to ensure we have the technology to place every available teacher in an empty classroom. That is something we have worked on over the past two years. We are very confident we can ensure that every single teacher placed on a panel is placed in a school on a daily basis and that there is absolutely no wastage but it is a critical issue in terms of retention and encouraging teachers, especially younger teachers, to stay in Ireland rather than go abroad.

What kind of expansion of that panel is Mr. Clerkin talking about? He said it is a pilot scheme. Is it in place for the entire country or only within certain areas?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

It has been in place in six locations. We would like the scheme to be put in place nationally and that there would be-----

Has there been engagement with the Department on this issue?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

We have been promoting this and asking the Department for it for the past year. It has put the pilot scheme in place to examine how it can work and our understanding is that it has worked very well so we certainly would encourage the Department to put this in place on a national basis.

What kind of numbers would we need for a permanent panel and how long would it take to put together?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

There will always be daily places for substitute teachers in larger schools. In a district such as Dublin, there could certainly be capacity to put a panel in place in each of the postal districts. Through liaising with the teachers, the schools and the Department systems that can identify the number of absences over the past year, it would not be impossible to place an accurate number of teachers on each of those panels.

The need for an audit of schools was referred to earlier, as there are accommodation issues many of them. I can think of schools in my own area that are looking for additional accommodation to be built, which have been waiting for quite some time, and other schools that are pencilled in to be totally replaced. Has an audit been commenced by the Department? What is the status of the accommodation requirements of schools starting from 1 September? What progress has been made on that issue?

Mr. Alan Mongey

I do not think any audit has been carried out to date but a lot of it is contingent on social distancing. It is very hard to complete an audit and get distinct data unless we know whether we are talking about 2 m or 1 m distancing or whether, if social distancing is not possible it is acceptable for students to be in a classroom of 28 or 29 students with the correct mitigation measures to inhibit the spread or stop Covid-19 coming into schools in place. Until there is a decision on those, carrying out the audit-----

How long would it take to carry out an audit if, for argument's sake, a decision was taken on those matters in the morning?

Mr. Alan Mongey

It could be done very quickly by the Department through the ESInet system. Every school leader in the country has access to a centralised database. We regularly complete surveys for the Department of Education and Skills and they are returned immediately to the Department through the centralised administration system for all primary and post-primary schools.

Have schools been encouraged by the Department to consider additional space as well as what they have on the school campus? Has there been engagement with school principals on this issue, where there are large or increasing numbers of students?

Mr. Alan Mongey

There has not been to date because, again, it is contingent on the public health advice. Once we have a clear understanding of what is required in schools we will be in a better position to indicate whether we need additional space.

What is the feedback from the NAPD's members on this issue?

Mr. Alan Mongey

At post-primary level, it is certainly going to be challenging to implement 1 m and 2 m distancing in every school throughout the country. Every school has its own contextual factors and every school is different. Some schools have classrooms of between 30 sq. m and 47 sq. m. They vary and once we have clarity on what social distancing is acceptable and safe, we will have a better understanding of what we are capable of doing. Every school leader is actively working to ensure we get every student returned to school in a safe and secure environment, as long as we can put those mitigation measures in place.

When would principals need a final decision to be taken on the 1 m or 2 m rule or other guidelines? What is the latest date they could get those guidelines? Obviously they would prefer to have them today or tomorrow but have the witnesses any idea about that? It cannot be left until the last week of August. Is there any indication from the Department yet on when there will be more definitive guidelines on this issue?

Mr. Paul Byrne

We are hoping to have guidelines from the Department as soon as possible. We need to begin this planning in the first week of August because to get any sort of system in place to do an audit of a school's capacity, we would have to look through what number of students can fit into each classroom. That might necessitate re-timetabling at times because the total number in a class might have to be matched with the largest classroom and certain classes in certain areas of the school would have to be prioritised. A significant volume of work needs to be done there and that takes time.

The first week in August is the latest we could expect to get a good plan done.

Schools that have children with special educational needs have additional challenges. Has the Department engaged on this issue? A number of schools in my area have accommodation issues and they also have a large number of pupils with these challenges. What engagement has there been with the Department on this issue?

Mr. Paul Byrne

My understanding is the Department has engaged with all of the bodies that represent the various educational sectors, including the special educational needs sector. The special considerations and provisions that will be needed have been voiced very well to the Department by us and by various representative bodies.

Does this include the possible need for additional staff to deal with this issue?

Mr. Paul Byrne

There is a possibility that we will need additional staff. The way we have been looking at it is that we will need resources in the four weeks leading up to the reopening of schools. Preparation will be key for the safe reopening of schools. Earlier, a Deputy asked about morale and building confidence. Communication will be very important. As we put systems and structures in place we need to communicate them to parents, teachers and students so they feel safe when they go back to school. The second part of this is that it will be an ongoing process. While we will have everything prepared for going back in late August and early September, there will be a need to reinforce the good practices that will be developed in the first week throughout the year during the course of this pandemic. Our big ask is that we are able to keep the virus out of schools. To do this we need to have parents and all of the various outside organisations working with us. It will be a team effort and I hope we will keep it out of the schools. The second part is that we will need to have systems in place to deal quickly with an outbreak of the virus in a school, including the follow-up response. If we move towards having blended learning for two weeks to get schools back up and running in the case of localised closures we will need a plan B, which will require an awful lot of time and a lot of resources.

I ask Mr. Byrne to conclude and if he has any additional points he can put them in writing.

At this stage most questions have been asked and answered but I have a number of quick queries. I will probably not need the full ten minutes. School transport has been spoken about and I apologise if my question has already been answered. Every year we have an issue in the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny with people not being able to get school transport. We also have an issue with the lack of secondary school places, particularly for boys in Kilkenny city. As a result, this year many parents did not secure a secondary school place in the city for their sons and must now try to get a school outside of the city. At this stage, some of the rural schools have also filled up. Given that people normally need to have their request for school transport in by the end of April, is it the understanding of the witnesses that this has been extended? Do they have any advice for parents in this situation who cannot access school places in the vicinity? As the witnesses know, these parents are also told that as they are sending their child to a school outside of the catchment area they do not automatically get the Bus Éireann transport, although they might be entitled to other private bus operators. Given that the timeframe has well lapsed at this stage, has it been extended or is there wriggle room for parents in this situation?

Mr. Damian White

I do not have direct information from Bus Éireann about it being extended but, like every other service and many other aspects, there has to be some latitude to make sure every child who needs it gets access to school transport.

While we are at the primary end of things, it is of huge concern to us when people do not get second level places. We hear back from the families about it and about their concerns and worries for their children's future. While I cannot address the second level issue, I agree with Deputy Funchion that more places may be needed in certain areas to cater for the demands of pupils. Kilkenny is one such area. In my area of Tullamore it was an issue in recent years as well.

I hope there is the latitude in school transport to make sure that every child and the application of every child are dealt with appropriately because there is still so much uncertainty at the moment as to what is available and what can possibly happen to school transport. People may have held back in applying. They may have health fears about overcrowded buses and so on. I myself am a parent. These things are real for all families who have to make decisions in this area. We hope there is that latitude within the school transport section to allow for later applications if necessary.

I make this point to the secondary school representatives. If they are, as I assume, to do a deal with the Kilkenny region, I ask them to bear that in mind. I raised with the Minister a number of weeks ago in the Dáil specific cases of kids who cannot get into secondary school. It seems to be a major issue for boys looking for secondary school places in the city. One of the things I asked was what we can do to try to help and facilitate that. I think we have a need for another secondary school layer, but if there is anything the witnesses can do or raise with or suggest to me about this - I do not mean right now but even afterwards - I would appreciate it. Every year we have the same stress and worry. I have such sympathy because my own son started secondary school last year and I know how big a step it is even when children know everything that is in front of them, when they know their school and their friends and how they will get there and what books they need. However, it is now 7 July, and I know a number of families with no school places for their children, not only in the city but also, they are now being told, ten miles outside the city. Those schools are full too. It is a general issue in secondary schools. I ask the witnesses to bear it in mind.

I acknowledge the excellent work special needs assistants do with kids. They often build such good one-on-one relationships with kids. So many of them, however, are very concerned about returning. Is there a plan for PPE for them or is that a plan for all teachers? I know that the witnesses are not representing the Department but I ask them to ensure they consult with the special needs assistants in any decisions they make. Are they aware of any particular plans for PPE for special needs assistants, will that be for all teachers, or are they looking only at hand sanitising?

Again, I apologise if some of this has been covered.

Mr. Alan Mongey

At post-primary level, when we speak about the staff in the school we speak about all staff: teachers, SNAs, cleaners and caretakers. Whatever has to be put in place for one staff member needs to be put in place for all staff members. The resources, assistance, help and mitigation measures we put in place are applicable to every single staff member within a school. If it is not safe or practical for any member of staff to carry out his or her duties unless particular supports or mitigation measures are put in place; we cannot do it. We need to look at everything possible to facilitate that to happen. We consult with all staff members, likewise, I am sure, at primary level.

My final point concerns the reality of kids going back to school at both primary and secondary level. It will be a big step for them. They have been out of school for quite a long time. I have concerns about children who may have been struggling a little and who are getting resource hours. They may not have any official diagnosis of additional need but they were benefiting from resource hours. Have the witnesses plans in place or have they made any recommendations to the Department on children who fall into this category getting extra help? I know everybody says, "Oh, well, everyone will catch up and get there eventually", but I am concerned particularly about the category or age group of children starting to learn how to read and those few months.

There was home schooling and so on but it was difficult for many children and I am concerned for many of them. I hope they do not go into next year's curriculum in September having missed out. Even the routine of it, getting up early and out the door and everything in the morning, is an issue.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

I thank the Deputy. That will certainly be a focus for us in our primary schools. When we get children back in classrooms in late August and early September, we want to ensure we can put all of the supports that are required in place in the classrooms. One of the issues on which we have asked for more discussion to ensure that it is implemented successfully is around support for our more vulnerable children and children with additional needs. We are developing plans ourselves to ensure that in-class support can continue and can be developed and implemented successfully to give maximum support to the children who will need that additional support. That will be a focus of our work over the coming weeks. I expect in most situations that it will be in-class support. It will be about minimising the opportunity for any cross-contamination or any virus entering schools. We will minimise the number of classrooms that any teacher will work in but that works very successfully in schools and has worked. Such in-class support has been promoted over the past number of years.

I would like to comment on the Deputy's point about SNAs. They are a crucial support in schools and to our children with special educational needs and we must ensure that they have that support on a daily basis. I just want to re-emphasise the importance of having the availability of substitute SNAs, which are a vital support to us. One of the barriers we face is the vetting issue. This issue needs to be sorted, probably through legislation. We need, as is the case with teachers, a centralized vetting service through the Teaching Council. We need a centralized vetting service for our SNAs so that they can be made available to schools that may require them at short notice. That is a barrier our schools are facing a moment and one which we need to address.

I thank Mr. Clerkin for coming in. In his opening presentation, he referred to the need to balance the safety of those who work in the school environment and the right to education of children. Does he think that balance has been properly struck up to now in this debate in considering the issue of reopening schools?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

To date, there has been great community support and great community work has gone on around education and provision of education since March. Everybody has worked together to try to ensure we can put the best provision in place and to support those who are teaching our students online and who are trying to engage with children to keep them in contact with the school system. We need to ensure that people continue to support each other and that they continue to work together. The crucial issue in this regard will be good communication and good and robust training and that the Department would put that in place for everyone in the school community so that everyone understands what we need to do. We need to ensure that we all work together and-----

I get all of that but there have been many studies. McKinsey released a report, which referred to the capacity this had to widen achievement gaps in the United States in particular. There was a real risk of immigrant communities, vulnerable communities and Hispanic and black communities falling further behind in achievement in the US. We have immigrant communities, new Irish communities and, in the past couple of decades, children coming to school unable to speak English and being at a disadvantage because of that, as well as being at a cultural disadvantage because they come from a very different background and grow up in a very different environment until they go to school.

Are their particular needs being sufficiently taken into account? Children from the Traveller community who encounter particular deprivation at home - I do not wish to generalise - in many instances might not enjoy the same supports at home for learning as might other children. On the right to education, we have heard a lot about the necessity for people to be safe, which I accept and the Government must do everything possible to ensure the greatest degree of safety. I will come to special needs assistants, SNAs, in particular, in a second. However, I have heard very little regard for the right to education; that these are Irish citizen children. Moreover, the many children in Ireland who are not citizens but who are in our school system still have a right to education and that right has to be vindicated by the State if it is to have any regard to the idea of cherishing all the children of the nation equally. Their rights and their requirements are very much being put in the second place to the right to bodily integrity and the right to health. There is a sort of a hierarchy of rights going on and children's needs are very much being put in a second place up to now in the whole debate.

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

Certainly, our organisation would always argue and advocate for the more vulnerable children and those who need the extra supports to ensure that we can ensure that they are looked after through our school system. Certainly, they would be a priority for all schools, for all school leaders and for our teachers now as we return and reopen our schools. We want to see that the resources are in place to ensure that we can plan for all of those challenges into the future and that we can implement those plans. We want the resourcing that will be required to be there to ensure we can do that. We acknowledge there is a challenge there. This was a focus for our schools and comprised a lot of the unheard work the schoolteachers were doing, whereby they kept in contact with those vulnerable children to keep them engaged with the school system to the very best of their ability. That is work we will have to prioritise when we go back in September. It is one of the challenges we face. One will find that every school leader and teacher will be most focused on ensuring that this happens successfully. We need the supports, however, and some of the flexibility I pointed out earlier on, to ensure that we can do so successfully.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recently produced a report, stating:

This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

That is a report based on the American experience. Is that mirrored by the Irish experience?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

One goes to the very basics. We fought hard to ensure that children would continue to be fed through the school meals provision programme. As an organisation, we took a leading role in ensuring that it would continue. We commend the fact that that will be made available during the summer period. All those background services supporting schoolchildren require ever more investment. They require the resources to ensure that we can do what we need to do to support those children. The one thing that can level the playing field for everyone is education and we must ensure that we give every opportunity to each child to achieve through the education system.

Turning to children with special education needs, one of the main steps that is taken by the State to provide for their needs is the provision of special needs assistants. The State has struggled historically to provide sufficient SNAs and to sufficiently incentivise people to become SNAs. Notwithstanding the fact that we are facing a return to school now, they will not be able to distance from the children with whom they work in any way because of the special needs of those children. Nevertheless, and correct me if I am wrong, no guidelines have yet been prepared specifically for SNAs. Is Mr. Clerkin concerned about the numbers of SNAs that will be provided, the numbers that will be necessary and the protections in terms of both guidelines and the provision of personal protection equipment, PPE, etc. for those SNAs? Has that been adequately thought out and planned for up to now?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

It is an issue that needs further work and further clarity and guidelines from the HSE and medical individuals regarding how we manage this. There is some anxiety to ensure it is managed effectively. One thing we want to ensure is that there are no barriers, so that when it comes to the procurement of required equipment, it will be made available to schools and there will not be any funding barriers facing schools trying to put that in place. That is why they need grants and money upfront to ensure they can pay for such equipment. We will work closely on that issue with all the stakeholders to ensure the best provision and the best and safest plans are put in place to support our SNAs, who are a crucial support in our classrooms.

It has been a while since I went to primary school. I was an only child, so I learned to socialise there. Patterns have changed considerably since Mr. Clerkin or I was in primary school. Children are typically dropped off earlier and stay much later in primary schools in after-hours homework clubs, etc., because of changing work patterns in society. What is going to happen with early drop-offs, homework clubs, etc.?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

From an operational point of view, we will have to put in place plans and we will need the buy-in of the whole school community. It will be important that school leaders, staff, parents and, of course, the board of management work closely together because at the end of the day the board of management has to sign off on all these plans.

We mentioned staggered openings. We need to ensure that we minimise the number of people dropping off their children at any one time. These are, however, situations that have been managed successfully. It will have been noted in recent years that it has been unusual for a school to be closed for things like snow days and so on. We have different plans and operational procedures in place to try to ensure safe access to, and safe collection from, school.

Turning to other services, such as breakfast clubs, it will be important that we will be able to put those in place for children. We will certainly put our focus on designing plans that will make it possible for schools to implement safe and orderly access, drop-off and collection from school during this period.

That is fine, but is Mr. Clerkin confident that breakfast clubs, homework clubs, etc., will be able to continue in September?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

It will be crucially important that we can make provision for facilities such as breakfast clubs for children. It is an important facility for them, so we will have to look at how we can put a plan in place to make that happen for them.

Is Mr. Clerkin confident that he will be able to? I do not wish to land all the responsibility for that matter on him. This is a much broader issue, but is he confident that it will-----

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

I am confident that all the stakeholders - the management bodies, ourselves and the INTO - will work together to try to ensure that all of these facilities and provisions are in place for our children and that we can get the maximum number of children back to school in September and support our parents. What is really important to us is to ensure everybody has confidence in what we are doing. That is why we all need to work together to ensure we have a comprehensive and robust plan for how we do this. I am confident that everybody is going to put every ounce of energy into ensuring this happens.

What is the role of the Department of Education and Skills?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

The Department is going to have to come in behind us and ensure we have the facilities, resources and flexibility required to ensure all of this can happen successfully.

Is it coming in behind the IPPN now on these issues of drop-off, homework clubs, etc.?

Mr. Páiric Clerkin

The issue of homework clubs has not been specifically discussed with the Department at this stage. These meetings are ongoing, and a meeting is happening as we speak. The Department has committed to provide the extra resources that will be required. It is negotiating with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform concerning those issues and we expect that the full system will come in behind the school system to ensure we have the required resources, because our society depends on it.

It is four months now since the schools closed and they will reopen in six weeks. Time is ticking. This is not a criticism of Mr. Clerkin, because it is not the IPPN's sole responsibility in any way. Many parents, however, are worried about what the situation will be like at the end of August when their children return to school and whether they will then be able to return to the workforce.

I am not saying it is for schools to adapt to the workplace but there will have to be a lot of adaptation. I thank Mr. Clerkin and all of our witnesses for coming in and for their time in answering all our questions. I also thank my committee colleagues and now adjourn the meeting until either Thursday or Friday morning, depending on the availability of witnesses to come in a day earlier than anticipated.

The committee adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 10 July 2020.