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

We have been notified that Deputies O'Donoghue, Cairns and Costello will substitute for their party colleagues. They are very welcome. I welcome our witnesses for our resumed discussion on the topic of education provision for the September reopening of schools including school transport. Joining us from committee room 1, we welcome: Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General; Ms Deirdre Shanley, assistant secretary; Mr. Hubert Loftus, assistant secretary; Ms Aoife Conduit, assistant secretary; Ms Yvonne Keating, deputy chief inspector; and Ms Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service.

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.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today and to engage with it on the planning to support the reopening of the schools sector. The then Taoiseach’s announcement on 12 March of the closure of all schools, colleges, universities and other training and learning facilities was the commencement of a series of challenges across the education sector as a result of Covid-19. Those challenges continue to be managed by the Department in partnership with the education partners and a range of stakeholders.

The interests of students and their families, as well as the safety of the staff in the sector, have been the paramount considerations throughout as we have worked through the challenges before us. Currently, the number one priority for the Department and the wider schools sector is to reopen our schools as fully, normally and safely as possible at the start of the new school year.

In the reopening of our schools, we will be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders including the school management bodies and staff representatives, as well as students and parents. Since the Department received the interim public health advice from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in June, it has been published by the Minister and made available to schools across the country.

The receipt of the public health advice has allowed us to commence an intense period of engagement with school management and staff representatives, which in turn has allowed us to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There is no doubt that the Minister, the Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopening as normal in the new school year in late August and September.

The public health recommendations will be updated as the summer progresses. The current advice provides an excellent platform for engagement with all of the education partners towards detailed planning for reopening our schools. The recommendations recognise that different approaches are necessary for children at different ages.

Our engagement with stakeholders, which is continuing right throughout this week, including today, has been open and frank with everyone, acknowledging that we need to work together. We are collectively focused on working through the detail of what the return to school will look like for all schools. The range of school settings presents both opportunities and challenges. Flexibility or agility in how we respond will be key. We are working through with school managers, leaders and staff how best they can be supported to not only open schools but to ensure they remain open.

There are logistical challenges to manage in respect of physical distancing arrangements, school transport and enhancing cleaning and hygiene routines, for example. There are well-being aspects to be identified and provided for students, their families and staff. There are curricular challenges which are being worked through in conjunction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. There are also assessment matters to consider in terms of the students undertaking State examinations in 2021. Work is advancing intensely across all of these strands.

One of the key elements to ensuring that schools can remain open once they reopen is to prevent Covid from getting into a school in the first instance. This will mean students, their families and staff playing their roles in keeping the virus out of their school by ensuring those who have symptoms or suspect they have the virus stay out of school, by maintaining best practice in terms of hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette in school, as well as by minimising social contacts and respecting physical distancing practices.

The public health advice recognises that physical distancing in a school context has some specific elements. It acknowledges:

The principle of distancing can be usefully applied in the school setting, allowing for some flexibility when needed. However, it must be applied in a practical way, recognising that the learning environment cannot be dominated by a potentially counterproductive focus on this issue.

Physical distancing measures fall into two broad categories, those being, increasing separation and decreasing interaction.

Reopening our schools is not just a matter of achieving a certain minimum physical distancing. It is also about getting students re-engaged fully with learning, socialising with their peers, and for some preparing for examinations, for others transitioning to school life or a different level in terms of moving from primary to post-primary. Students need the support of their families, teachers and school staff in readjusting to school life and physical learning environments again.

It is realistic to predict that all students, teachers and parents will experience a broad range of feelings on the return to school. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but also anxiety and fear. That is understandable given these circumstances, and the Department is developing with other stakeholders a response to support the well-being in our school communities.

Our focus has been on working with the stakeholders so that we can reopen our schools safely. We know that there will be costs associated with reopening, not just in terms of hand sanitisation or cleaning regimes, but in terms of teacher and SNA substitution and support for school leaders. We are currently defining what is needed and preparing cost estimates for these elements. I assure the committee that there is full engagement with the stakeholders and that everyone is committed to concluding the scoping and planning phases by the end of this month so that schools have sufficient time to prepare at a local level for reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication.

I thank Mr. Ó Foghlú. Sinn Féin has the first speaking slot this morning. Is Deputy Farrell taking ten minutes?

Yes. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Ó Foghlú as an gcur i láthair sin. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach dúinn ar fad.

The closure of schools has been difficult for all involved. I acknowledge the significant efforts of teachers, parents, children and staff, who have been extraordinary. Despite their best efforts, however, there is no question but that, through no one's fault, some children have fallen behind, in particular children in educational disadvantage or with special educational needs. It is our view that the objective of everyone involved in education must be to deliver a full and safe return to the school building. Is Mr. Ó Foghlú confident that a full return to school can be delivered in a safe manner?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Yes. We all share the same objective; it is shared across the political system and stakeholders. Our aim is to return as fully, normally and safely as possible. We have to work through how to do that. It is a challenging and complex process, but everyone is working together on seeking to realise it.

Given that the Department has stated that social distancing is not a prerequisite for primary school children below third class, can we assume that social distancing is to apply in third class and above? If so, how does the Department see it happening that all of those children will be back safely?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

It is not a case of social distancing not applying. Rather, it is a case of different sets of arrangements depending on the years within classes. We have advice from the health authorities, which we are seeking to work through with school authorities in considering different ways in which different schools can manage within the overall framework of the health guidance. We will put departmental guidance in place to help translate that for the school sector. As such, we are confident that, in the context of the question the Deputy set out, there will be capacity to work the advice through in a way that will enable the children to return to school and the school's staff to be safe.

My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, and Sinn Féin in general have been calling for a roadmap for a return to education for a number of months. We were promised one for 12 June, but what we got was a document that outlined a number of elements, including how children might only return for a few days per week if social distancing of 2 m applied. Subsequently, however, the then Minister told us that he was not going to pursue that. This can hardly be considered a roadmap. Are we going to get a roadmap or was that it?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We thought it was very helpful to provide an update to the school community in June regarding plans towards school opening. It was an important issue to address. We were very dependent on the engagement with the health authorities in order that we could have the health advice available to us. We received that in late June and it was then published last week. We will be providing detailed guidance to the primary and post-primary sectors. We have already sent initial sets of guidance to the school principals in the primary sector and we will be updating that further as a result of the further dialogue. We are in dialogue about such guidance for the post-primary sector and we aim to have all of that material completed by the end of this month. As I set out in the opening statement, there is a wide range of issues to be covered in the guidance.

I also notice that in his opening statement, Mr. Ó Foghlú outlined that the aim is to prevent Covid-19 getting into any school. That obviously is the aim of the game but in the event of a child or a teacher becoming ill with Covid-19, which is a likely situation, will the State carry the liability for any cases that may follow or will the Department expect the board of management or patron to be liable?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I will address the first issue the Deputy mentioned. It is set out clearly in the advice that we have from the health authorities that it is vital that we change the culture in respect of attendance by students and staff such that they do not push themselves to attend school when they are showing any of the symptoms. That is a change of behaviour that will be necessary. Also, it is necessary that the hygiene arrangements are available when they come in. The guidance from the health sector, which we will translate further for schools, will also set out the arrangements that will need to be put in place should anybody fall ill during school time or should it turn out later that somebody who was in a school had Covid. We will have to work through how we will handle all of those issues.

I do not think it is a question of liability per se. The school themselves have their own insurance. There is a wide range of school insurance arrangements in place across the various school sectors. It is not a matter of liability for insurance. I do not fully understand the Deputy's question about liability. Liability for what? Schools have their own insurance and some schools have State insurance in the community and comprehensive sector.

As Mr. Ó Foghlú mentioned, hygiene is a central aspect of this entire situation. Sinn Féin has long called for the Department to cover all additional hygiene costs as schools simply cannot bear the costs. There is also a concern that the cost would then be passed on to parents. We know that many families are struggling financially at the moment. Can the Department guarantee that no additional costs will be passed on to parents and that schools will get adequate funding?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have been listening very closely not just to the stakeholders but to the political discussions and many interesting and relevant issues have come up in the Covid hearings and more generally in the broader political discussions on these issues in the Dáil with the previous Minister. We are very conscious of not putting an additional financial burden on schools for these costs and additional funding will be available to cover the hygiene costs. That could be for the sanitiser. It could also be for some personal protective equipment, PPE, although we hope that PPE will be quite limited in its use, but it will also be for cleaning surfaces. The intention is not that those costs will come out of existing funding for schools. We are also seeking to put in place tendering and drawdown contract arrangements to enable any equipment and so on to be more easily available to schools in order that they do not have to do it for themselves for the autumn reopening.

On PPE, there is quite a debate at the moment about masks and the importance of wearing them. Is it being considered that children or teachers would wear any form of masks or visors? That could then have educational impacts. Does Mr. Ó Foghlú envisage any educational impacts from the wearing of masks in terms of a lack of visual cues for children with special educational needs?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The issues the Deputy raises are valid.

We have the health advice and it does not suggest that children in normal circumstances in a school setting would use PPE. However, there may be a case for staff working closely with them to have PPE and the visor would be much preferable to the mask for the reasons the Deputy has set out. There may also be a need for some PPE for older children on school transport and that is referred to in the advice as well. We are looking at that and talking to Bus Éireann about that issue. The Deputy has raised an important issue that the mask in a teaching and learning setting cuts off the contact between the SNA or teacher and the student. A visor is probably a much more suitable use of PPE as it enables that connection to take place while also providing the appropriate protection for staff, which is important.

There is a huge volume of work for all involved in delivering this. Will additional secretarial supports be provided and will teaching principals get additional release dates to allow them to focus on making the school safe?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are engaging with school stakeholders about making assistance supports available in terms of leadership time and such issues. We have not finalised or firmed up those arrangements but we are very conscious of the need to do so. It is clear that schools need to have additional time freed up to manage the range of activities that will need to be put in place and provide the required level of engagement and organisation. We have to support that with additional measures. Finding the best way to do that is the challenge we are working through at the moment.

Can I clarify with Mr. Ó Foghlú the timeline for the guidelines to issue?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We aim to have guidance issued by the end of July, at the latest. We recognise that schools need time to prepare and we will work on a communications campaign. We will work closely with the national stakeholders as part of this campaign when we finalise the work.

There is a fine balance between getting time to produce additional public health guidance and get the guidance to schools to give them enough time. I recognise the practical difficulty with that.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Absolutely. We have the initial health guidance, which was given to us in late June. That guidance looked at what was happening in Ireland towards the middle of June and the impact of school reopenings in other countries, particularly in May, because it takes two or three weeks to see the impact. The health authorities will have a better idea about the impact of school openings in other countries in June by the time we have further engagement with them and they may decide to update the guidance. They may decide it does not need updating but it is important we continue to engage with the health authorities.

How many additional staff does Mr. Ó Foghlú expect to have to employ beyond the complement that is currently in these schools? Has he a breakdown of the figure into teaching and non-teaching roles?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are working through those issues at the moment. We recognise that there will be a need for the employment of additional staff. In particular, we have to free up leadership time and there will be a need to cover that. We have to examine different ways of doing substitution for teachers and SNAs. We have trialled new systems of substitution in the primary sector with panels. We had five panels last year. We also have the option in small schools where teaching principals have administrative days, that they pool those days and appoint a substitute to cover a number of schools. We are looking at those and other models to support schools. We may also need to have increased substitution because at the moment schools cover themselves for the first day of substitution for uncertified leave.

It clearly will not be satisfactory to spread children to other classes. That is not going to be a solution. There may be a very small fraction of classes where that is possible but as a general model that is not a way that we are going.

I asked Mr. Ó Foghlú to put a figure on the additional staff complement because quite a significant amount of new people could be needed to keep, as he said, proper supervision and proper control, for substitution for sick teachers and for additional supervision, which is a huge issue. Does Mr. Ó Foghlú have a figure for this? I can ask further questions if he is able to give me an answer on that.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We do not have a precise figure because we are working through with the stakeholders and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform what the options are about how we can do that. It is very difficult to be certain about the precise-----

Let me put it a different way. Is Mr. Ó Foghlú talking about hundreds of new staff?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I do not want to put a number on it, but across the sector given the different needs, including cleaning and so on, there will be a need for significant additional staffing to cover-----

One of the reasons I am asking this is-----

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

-----in different ways. At the moment, for example, we have substitutes coming in randomly on different days and that works kind of well-----

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

------but we want to minimise that. We want to minimise the number of schools different substitutes are going to, so we may be able to create more full-time posts while reducing the overall number of people who are actually substituting------

I understand that and I am not expecting Mr. Ó Foghlú to give me an exact figure. Given the timeline our Acting Chairman asked Mr. Ó Foghlú about, I think he should know. I am not being personally critical. It is a fact that large schools are going to need a lot more extra staff and there is going to be a very short time in which to get them. Garda clearance is a huge issue in this as well. For staff who are not teaching, some of them may have Garda clearance already but other people who will be needed will not, so this is a huge issue. I am not suggesting the Department is not addressing it but we need to know more facts about it.

The other point I wish to put to Mr. Ó Foghlú is about school transport and PPE, particularly for children. Who will pay for that? I presume the Department will do so. An important point is that an adult will have to accompany the bus driver on the bus, who will have the capacity to control, in a general sense, the issues that might arise. Has Mr. Ó Foghlú thought about that?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Deputy is absolutely correct about the need for additional staffing and for Garda vetting where it is required. We are conscious of that and that is part of the discussions we are having with the management bodies, the unions and so on.

On school transport, the same applies as with schools, in that the Department will pay for the additional cost of any PPE. That is something important that we will make available to them. We are in discussions with Bus Éireann about how school transport will be organised. The arrangements for school transport have been set out in the interim health advice, which is quite positive as far as the capacity of the school transport system is concerned. At the same time, however, we have to ensure arrangements are put in place to support social distancing as best we can and to support groups of children from the same family to sit together and so on. Those are the sorts of issues we are working through with Bus Éireann at the moment. It is important to note, however, that Bus Éireann is in the process of arranging for the school transport system at the moment, including whatever tendering needs to be put in place and whatever engagement with students and their families about those who are eligible and those who will be able to access concessionary travel is necessary.

Regarding PPE, will every schoolchild travelling on a bus have to have a designated type of face mask? This is really a general question because there are face masks and there are face masks and it is hard to know which is the appropriate one for adults, never mind children. This is going to be a huge problem, is it not?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Again, the advice we have from the health authorities is encouraging the use of face masks for children aged 13 and over. We would be following the same general health advice on face mask use that as applies to the general public.

There will not be any particularly unique educational aspect to advice on face masks on school transport. It is possible that where people are in very close quarters, visors might be needed for bus escorts, for example. In the same way, engagement will be needed within the school sector for anyone assisting students with special educational needs, because wearing face masks cuts off their facial expressions to a large extent.

Does the Department tender for PPE nationally, regionally or locally? I am just trying to get a definition of the quality.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Deputy is absolutely right. This has been a big and challenging issue, especially in the first months of the virus. We have a national tender under way at the moment and we envisage drawdown of different aspects of that. We envisage delivery to each school arising from the national tender and each school being able to enter an arrangement based on the outcome of that tender.

One of the difficulties we have with this committee is that, as we are in different rooms, witnesses cannot always hear or see if a member is trying to interject. I just wanted to make Mr. Ó Foghlú aware of that. It is a problem we have in every session so I am flagging because members do not have much time for their questions. I am sensitive that we have gone a little over time but I will accommodate everyone in the same way. The Chairman has just come in and I am sure he is horrified to see that I have allowed the committee to go over by so much. I am sure he will have strong words with me later. I ask the rest of the committee to forgive me.

I call Deputy Colm Burke.

I thank the Department and its staff for the work they have done over the last three or four months, which has been a very difficult time for everyone, as well as the teachers and boards of management around the country. There are a number of schools in my area where there is a difficulty with space. Some are on the programme for new classrooms and in one case a totally new school is due to be built because there are 350 pupils in a facility where 70% of the classrooms are prefabs. What work has been done on identifying additional space for schools where there are accommodation problems at the moment? Has there been engagement with boards of management on that issue? How big a problem or challenge is it going to be over the next two months to identify alternative space?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I ask Mr. Loftus to take that question.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

I am the head of the Department's planning and building unit. The Deputy will be aware that construction ceased across all area as part of the Covid response and projects re-mobilised from the middle of May. We had 200 building projects at construction stage and they are now largely re-mobilised. Our focus now is on getting them up and running and getting projects delivered.

As regards issues schools might have in September, our focus is on working through contingency arrangements with them. We have had detailed engagement with all the relevant schools and their patrons and are working out accommodation solutions for them. At this point, while we have some work to do with some individual schools, we are satisfied that we will have contingency arrangements in place for September.

Some schools may not be on the building programme at the moment but are at capacity and it is now quite clear that we will need additional space for students because of the changes and regulations that will be in place. Will additional space be acquired between now and 1 September to accommodate those schools? I am talking in particular about schools in rural areas where it may not be that easy to get additional space, or in growing urban centres where there has been a huge increase in the young population. It is about sourcing additional space. Are we going to be renting additional space to accommodate those schools?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

That is the engagement we have had with a lot of stakeholders and individual schools. Our focus is on making sure there is sufficient space available. The public health guidance is very clear that we must maximise the space within the classroom to facilitate the pupils in the classroom and maximise the space within the existing school building.

We have had very positive and constructive engagement with the relevant schools and patrons. It is about everyone working together in a constructive way to ensure the schools' return at the end of August is as seamless as possible for everyone.

If additional space cannot be identified, will we have some pupils in between 8.30 a.m. and 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and another group of students from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.? Will this have to be done in some areas where additional space cannot be identified?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

We are confident and, as the Secretary General made clear, we are working to have schools reopened at the end of August and start of September in as full and normal a manner as possible and in a safe way. With regard to individual schools, we are working in a very flexible and constructive way to deal with particular issues at individual schools.

Do we have an idea of the overall percentage of schools where we may have a difficulty with space? I am not looking for numbers but are we looking at anything up to 15% or 20% of schools or is it a greater challenge than that?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

We have 4,000 primary and post-primary schools and we have had engagement with cohorts of schools on particular accommodation issues for September. It is a very small fraction - a handful of schools - that is most acutely affected and we are working very closely with those schools. We are very confident that we will have solutions in place.

Are we talking about up to 500 schools where we may have a challenge with getting everyone back?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

There is challenge generally for all schools in managing this and that will be part of the guidance. With regard to the particular challenges with accommodation specifically, there are no more than a dozen or so acute cases.

What is the biggest stumbling block the Department will come across between now and September in dealing with this issue?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

With regard to working accommodation solutions, I am confident that through everyone working locally in a constructive way any stumbling block can be managed and overcome.

I welcome our guests and thank them for their attendance and remarks, particularly the Secretary General and his colleagues. I welcome the change in culture and message that if people are sick, they should stay away, and the remarks about the number one priority of the Department reopening the schools. It is a good place to start. I spoke with a number of the teacher representatives who were here on Tuesday. It is good to see that everybody is on the same side. My first question is for the Secretary General. How soon after Covid hit did planning begin on the reopening of schools?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I thank the Deputy. We were immediately conscious on the day we were closing schools, and we had to close them at very short notice on the advice of the health authorities, that it would be more difficult to reopen them and that there would be more challenges. We did not know what the virus was going to be like at that initial time. We were hopeful it would pass more speedily than it has, although it has been brought under control very well in society in that time. Our immediate work was to support schools in engaging with their students and advancing learning in what turned out to be the three-week period before the Easter schools' break. We also did immediate thinking on the nature of the assessments for State examinations that had been planned for those three weeks. As we worked through, the Minister made the call over the Easter period that schools were effectively closed until further notice.

At that stage, while continuing to put a big focus on supporting learning for the remaining number of weeks, a shorter period in second level, and another focus on the year-end certification, particularly for junior and leaving certificate years, we also began work, reflection and engagement on how schools would reopen. We initially engaged with health advice on the examination system, and that was very important. We had a focus initially on bringing some teachers back for sixth year classes in July, but when it became clear that this was not possible, we focused on planning for the longer-run return, which has been September. In addition, more recently, when the health advice changed such that it would be possible to bring back some schooling in the summer, we focused on the summer provision as well.

I thank Mr. Ó Foghlú for that. Assuming everything goes to plan and schools are reopened in September, I note this morning there is talk of additional funding for both substitute teachers and the cleaning of schools. While Mr. Ó Foghlú touched on cleansing earlier in response to some of the questions, does he have a figure for the amount of additional money the Department is talking about, particularly for those principals who may be watching and wondering about additional teachers? We know there is a challenge in securing substitute teachers at the best of times. Can Mr. Ó Foghlú touch on the cost of this?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We do not and cannot put a figure on the equipment, the sanitising and so on because we are in a tender process and have to be very careful about that. We can, however, give the guarantee we will fund it all. We also want to try to get the best value for money, obviously, as part of this. The principals' network bodies, the unions representing principals and the management authorities are working through these precise issues as to what the nature of demand will be for the additional staff. We are working through those issues with them. We cannot be definitive about them but they will involve a mixture of better organisation of substitution, with a probable need for more substitution, given that classes cannot be covered for the first day by other teachers, and the expectation that there will be a higher level of absence, given that we want teachers and other staff, and indeed students, to stay away if they are showing any symptoms. We have to work through these issues with them. We cannot be definitive about the numbers but we can assure the principals that we are working with their representative bodies and will have definitive information published by the end of the month.

Once complete and issued to schools, will this roadmap help the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the roadmap needed for special schools and children or adults with disabilities? Will Mr. Ó Foghlú's Department work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on that?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

There are a couple of issues there. Special schools are included under our Department's remit and we are working with the special schools and their representatives on the reopening of schools and keeping them open. We work very closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The people who gave us the health advice and the health authorities have given very helpful advice on reopening crèches, preschools and so on. We will also have the experience of the crèches being open in July, which will help to inform any further health advice we have. We have been working very closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and we always do. We have a particular policy link on preschool and the access and inclusion model, AIM, which is helping in particular the young children in preschools with special educational needs. We are very focused on their transition as well, so we have a range of issues on which we work very closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Very good. I have just two more questions for the Secretary General and then two for Mr. Loftus. I might as well ask them all together. The first concerns after-school activities. What is the likely guidance to schools on after-school or extracurricular activities based on school premises?

The second question is more of a perennial issue, which is the weight of schoolbags. Perhaps this is an opportunity for schools to apply to a fund for lockers to try to enable pupils to leave schoolbooks on the school premises. Obviously, there is a health and safety benefit in the context of Covid if schoolbooks are left on the premises and not taken back home when not necessary.

I have a couple of questions for Mr. Loftus in relation to school space and accommodation. If the school itself is small and social distancing is impossible, will there be a fund available for either renting additional space or providing additional space, be it Portakabins or whatever? Is that in the pipeline? Second, if a school has small numbers but the school building is large and there is a possibility of splitting the classes, will there be an opportunity for schools to apply for additional teachers so that those class numbers can be reduced, bearing in mind that some of the class sizes exceed the normal class sizes? They might come back to me on those.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

On after-school care, I might even move into the issue of mornings as well. The advice we have from the health authorities covers these areas as well. It also will be part of the guidance that we issue because it will have to follow the same general arrangements within the school. There is a particular importance attaching to breakfast clubs, after-school clubs etc., especially for children who are disadvantaged, and equally, the provision of school meals, which is the responsibility of our colleagues in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. However, that is part of all that has to be done within the role of the school in the community as a whole. We will be covering that advice. Indeed, as part of the changes with the current Government, the Department of Education and Skills is taking responsibility for education welfare and will have responsibility for school completion etc., going forward.

In relation to lockers, that is a challenging issue because we are trying to maximise space. That is part of the discussions that we are having with our colleagues in the partner bodies. The use of lockers is something that creates congregation and we have to be careful about that. We also have to be careful that we have the spaces in the corridors for social distancing because the distancing issue applies within and without the classroom. It is important that the children are as far apart as is practicable outside of the classroom. We recognise there will be a challenge in relation to schoolbooks and so on because there may not be the same locker space available but that is one of the issues that we are working through with the stakeholders.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

In terms of the guidance that we will be providing to the school system before the end of July, we will make clear how space is to be managed and how that is to be done. To help the school system, we intend to have illustrative classroom layouts provided for schools, which will help them plan and organise space. The public health guidance is clear about maximising space within the school building and within the classroom to ensure there is as much space as possible to facilitate students. Obviously, if there are particular issues thereafter for individual schools, we will be available to advise and support them in terms of how that is done but the public health guidance will be the framework for helping to ensure there is that clarity for individual schools.

Finally, if I may, where the schools have the space and where there is a possibility of facilitating those classrooms, I urge the Department to try to ensure that a fund is made available to those schools to employ additional teachers in order that those class sizes are reduced and, indeed, the space is given for socially-distanced education.

Picking up on the previous point in relation to school space, Mr. Loftus spoke earlier about ensuring there is enough space in the school in the classroom and having a solution in place if there is not. My thoughts turned to schools, of which I am sure there are plenty, that will not have sufficient space to meet the public health guidelines. What does the Department see as the solutions? Will it be able to support schools if they need to, for example, hire the local parish hall? If a school needs to look outside the school gates for a solution, will the Department support them in any costs involved?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

I suppose the first port of call in working through the public health advice is to provide the framework for schools in order that they then know how they can manage within the confines of the school building and how they can maximise space within the classroom. That includes taking a fresh look at each classroom and taking a look to see what is the furniture in the classroom that does not need to be within it to maximise space. It includes taking a fresh look at the building generally, what spaces there might be within an assembly area, hall or whatever else.

Many schools also have facilities adjacent to the school building, be it the parish hall or whatever. This is all about a national collective effort to facilitate the return of schools, because that is in everyone's interest. Where there are particular pinch points to be managed, we will be working with schools individually.

I also wish to touch on the role of special needs assistants, SNAs. We all know SNAs are a valuable part of our education system, but they also work closely with vulnerable students. What specific supports are being given to SNAs? We had some conversation already concerning PPE, but I am referring to aspects such as other guidance etc.. In addition, if school attendance is going to be part-time or partial, how will that impact on the work of SNAs with specific students and their employment conditions?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Regarding guidance, we will aim to have guidance available for the whole staff community of schools. It is part of the Return to Work Protocol in any case, but it is important that there be full understanding among all staff in a school of all the important issues arising regarding returning to work during the Covid-19 crisis. We fully recognise the important role of SNAs. Being honest, I think this crisis has brought out the importance of the role of schools in a major way. I refer to the obvious importance of schools in learning, but beyond that their physical absence has highlighted many other aspects of their role in society and set it out for society to see as a whole. All staff members in schools, therefore, teachers, SNAs and others, have an important role.

We are aiming to maximise school return and we do not want to be in a position where there are widespread absences. Regarding terms and conditions, we are clear that staff may be unable to attend. The reasons for that can include those limited health reasons set out by the HSE and more work is being undertaken by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on that issue across the public sector. Generally, workers unable to work during the Covid-19 crisis will still be at work, but if they are unable to attend then they are unable to attend. I hope that answers the question.

I have another question on staffing. Much of the staffing levels are determined by the returns of the number of children to the Department on 30 September. If, however, some children will be enrolling late, perhaps because parents will not be enrolling them in junior infants because of health concerns, or parents of children have underlying health concerns themselves, what is being done to ensure that schools do not lose staff because of returns that may be unusually low on that date?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The enrolment process will be complete. There may be a distinction here between enrolment and attendance. Generally, the enrolment process would be complete now, and we have new arrangements for future years in the context of the admissions legislation. I suspect that what the Deputy is speaking about may arise more in the area of attendance, but the children would still be enrolled and would be part of the October returns.

Regarding attendance, then, after 20 days of absence in a year there is supposed to be a referral to the National Education Welfare Board, NEWB, and circular 0028/2013 states that a school should strike a child's name off the roll after he or she has been absent for 20 days. I assume guidance will be provided regarding how to manage that issue, given that children are being asked to self-isolate or not come in if they have symptoms?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

There is a fine line here. The Deputy is absolutely right in stating that if children are unable to attend, then it is important that inability to attend for a sickness reason is identified and does not give rise to the situation of which he spoke. Importantly, we also have to be careful - and the committee has discussed this issue previously - about children who may have become disengaged. We do not want to turn off the red light on the 20 days aspect because we need to find ways to deal with that. We need to work with our colleagues on the education welfare side of things who, as I mentioned, are now coming under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills while still working within Tusla, to ensure that we ascertain that the connections are made and that the whole-school approach in respect of all liaison etc., especially in disadvantaged schools, ensures that this risk of disengagement does not give rise to high levels of non-attendance.

I have one more question. We have all been working from home and there has been some element of blended learning, in children learning remotely and engaging in online education and such. Obviously, there is a huge digital divide to this both in geographic terms in broadband connectivity and in socioeconomic terms. If blended learning is going to be a feature of our education system in the future as a result of this pandemic, what steps will the Department take to ensure that children in schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme or children in disadvantaged areas will not fall behind or miss out on opportunities more advantaged schools will get?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is clearly another issue the committee has reflected on and it is a really important issue. The most important message is that we do not want to continue with blended learning. That is really important. We want to absolutely maximise attendance. We are planning for contingencies that blended learning may need to be in place depending on the virus and so on, but that is not something we want. It is quite clear that blended learning cannot and does not work for everyone and that the role of attendance in schools is vital. Much research has been undertaken on this, both within the Department by the inspectorate and independently by other bodies. Some research was published in recent weeks by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and researchers in Trinity College Dublin, so we know the impact of that and-----

I will cut you off there because my reputation for timekeeping will be out the window entirely. I will make the point about provision for learning for children who are not just ill themselves, but who are also living in a house where somebody is immunocompromised. There is a risk there as well and that is a distinct thing to somebody who is disengaged from the system.

I call Deputy Ó Ríordáin who has five minutes.

I want to ask in particular about the financial package that will be available for the reopening of schools. Will it include post-primary further education colleges, which come under Mr. Ó Foghlú's remit and have a roll number as schools?

I will ask my questions in a block if that is okay. Will the financial measures address the digital divide? I am told that approximately 30% of students in the post-primary and further education sectors have no IT connectivity at all. I know from talking to some principals from disadvantaged second level schools that approximately 60% of their students have to access learning via a phone device. Will that be addressed in the financial package?

With regard to teaching and teacher numbers, will all teacher absences be substitutable? Does Mr. Ó Foghlú accept that in a primary school setting, if a teacher is absent in the new scenario we are facing, and without a substitute being immediately available, it would be impossible for that class to be supervised, taught or split into another class, and so without that substitute, the system cannot survive? Will all teacher absences be substitutable, and within that, will jobsharing teachers be able to provide cover? Is that part of the solution?

My last question is on predicted gradings and the fact that the leaving certificate was cancelled due to Covid-19. A high-profile case concerned Finn Robertson in County Waterford. While I do not ask Mr. Ó Foghlú to refer to a particular case, what is the Department doing to address the fact that some students are not eligible for predicted grades because they had been self-taught? This was flagged immediately with Mr. Ó Foghlú's Department and with the then Minister when the predicted grading system was announced. There are students who, because of various different circumstances in their own schools, take higher level or whatever level subjects themselves, are now suddenly being told they are not eligible for predicted grades. Will Mr. Ó Foghlú also answer that question please?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

On the Deputy's first question, the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science does not legally exist yet but it is being established. The Department of Education and Skills will not have responsibility for further education colleges. I am here on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills to talk about the reopening of schools. The further education colleges are treated like schools for administrative purposes but they do not now fall under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills.

I do not have the authority. A new Secretary General and Minister have been appointed to that Department who can talk about the matter.

In terms of the digital divide, we are aiming for the return of schools. We do not wish for blended learning. In terms of the end of the month, we will support as fully as possible the return of schools and are planning for possible contingencies if that may not be possible. It is not the main part of our plan and while we will have elements of support, the main part of our plan is to facilitate the return of schools as fully as possible.

In terms of substitutions, we are working through those issues and recognise it is not possible to leave the first cover of uncertified leave unsubstitutable because it creates an impossible situation in a school context. We are working through that and we have a number of suggestions for ways to do so. There are a number of sorts of leave that are not substitutable and we are working through those issues in our dialogue. Jobsharing cover is one of the other options that I had not mentioned but has been given as one of the solutions. In principle, we want to provide jobsharing cover but there is a challenge in terms of enabling us to do so.

The reopening of schools is a different issue from grades. The Deputy mentioned that the issue was flagged immediately. It is an issue that we were immediately confident about. It has been mentioned that the leaving certificate was being cancelled. To be clear, the leaving certificate has not been cancelled but postponed, which is a big and important legal distinction. We were unable to proceed with the written leaving certificate examinations in the summer but will provide them as soon as possible and the previous Minister for Education and Skills talked about November at the earliest. We are conscious of the matter and tried to maximise the possibility for out-of-school learners where there are two groups comprised of students who are in schools but taking subjects out of school and students who are out of school but not attending school. We have sought to maximise the possibility to provide a calculated grade for those but there is no alternative assessment available as part of the leaving certificate. The leaving certificate is postponed but will be available in written form as early as possible and it is not possible to put in place an alternative.

I welcome the committee's inclusion of school transport as a topic, which is recognition of the vital role school transport plays especially in rural Ireland. However, the topic only got a passing mention in the opening statements.

The work of planning a return to education offers a new opportunity to consider how schools operate, and how greater equity and support can be added. It is an opportunity to review the school transport scheme, which does not work for many families and is a substantial cost for many families in west Cork and across rural Ireland. We need to reform the remote area grant, which is insufficient to cover costs especially for island communities. What assurances can Mr. Ó Foghlú give us that the cost of school transport will not be increased and that the remote area grant will not be affected by the additional costs to provide social distanced travel?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are leaving the arrangements for school transport in place for the forthcoming school year. Therefore, arrangements for the remote area grant, eligibility, concessionary travel and so on remain the same. We will have to work through the complexities of implementing the health advice with Bus Éireann.

We are committed to a review. We had a review of the school transport scheme under way, which we are in the process of commencing. Many of the issues mentioned by the Deputy fall to be part of the review and that has been raised in the programme for Government. We will have to consider the terms of reference for the review that we have in place, having regard to the programme for Government, to seek to work further on school transport.

I am glad to hear that there is a review and hope it is speedy. To people in island communities, the news that there is a review will not be a big reassurance.

In the statement there was an acknowledgement that social distancing will require a maximum use of school space. In that case, an issue will arise for small schools.

These are mainly primary schools in rural areas which have limited capacity. For example, my school only had two classrooms and still does. What measures will the Department take to ensure sufficient capacity to provide a safe learning environment in smaller schools?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As Mr. Loftus said, we are working on options for classroom layouts. We will be working with schools to enable classroom layout to maximise the space within the classroom and support the provision of personal protective equipment and hygiene equipment and so on to ensure the classroom environments are as safe as possible. In our work with the primary stakeholders we are confident that we can manage this together. We are working through it. We are conscious of the nature and difference of the different types of schools within the system, including the difference between small rural schools and big urban schools. We are trying to work on a variety of options to support and assist all of them. Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to the issue of substitution. That is a particular issue in a small school with two or three teachers. If a teacher is unable to attend at short notice how can we ensure a substitute is in place? These are exactly the types of issues that we need to work through.

I have two more points and I will lump them in together because of time constraints. What guidelines are in place for autism spectrum disorder and other special units as they prepare to return in September? Due to particular needs sometimes closer interactions are necessary with teachers, special needs assistants and students. What guidance and protection will be in place for SNAs, students and their families?

What level of engagement has the Department had with the Irish Second-Level Students Union? As representatives of students the union should be key to drafting any plans or protocols. It should be noted that the ISSU and the Union of Students in Ireland need to be asked to speak before this committee so that we can all learn from them.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I will start at the end first. The committee members can be assured that we have got to know our colleague in the ISSU well in recent months, including Reuban Murray, the current president, and the previous president. We have been working closely with them. The committee may recognise that the student voice is perhaps having a coming of age at the moment in the current discussions and debates. Their voices on calculated grades were important as was the nature of their engagement with their members. They are part of our engagement, as are parents. We have to be careful and find different ways of engaging with parents and students beyond the representative bodies. The inspectors have good ways of linking in with groups of students and getting-----

Will Mr. Ó Foghlú give a quick update on ASD units and arrangements for SNAs. Closer interaction is sometimes necessary. Is there guidance and equipment for that?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The work we are doing on layout will cover ASD units as well. We are conscious that the number of students in an ASD unit is smaller than in a typical classroom and more adults are present. The nature of the protections that will need to be put in place for staff have to be such that they do not come against the interaction between the member of staff and the student. We are conscious that the students in these settings need the most support and have missed out most from the lack of engagement. The stakeholders are together on this. We are all conscious of the need to ensure collectively that the return to schooling enables and enhances their development and learning.

Who bears the responsibility for policing the wearing of masks on school transport? Whose responsibility is it?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have to work through the nature of the guidance with Bus Éireann. We have initial guidance from the health authorities and we have to work through with Bus Éireann how the arrangements that we put in place will operate. We have not said that the wearing of masks will be compulsory. The advice is that it is advisable. We have to work through how we will do that and, depending on whatever measures we take, how we will ensure the guidance is implemented.

Bus Éireann put out the bus transport system to tender.

It is usually private bus owners who run the scheme. In the rural setting in which I live, the same bus carries both primary school kids and secondary school kids. It is a double run. The buses are at capacity. If social distancing is to be implemented, and if primary schoolchildren must be separated from secondary schoolchildren because of the risk of contamination, to be reasonable, the bus runs for primary school will have to be doubled and a second, different bus will have to run for secondary schools. Are bus firms in the country able to sustain this? How will this be managed if they are not?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Deputy is right, of course; the vast majority of services are tendered out by Bus Éireann. The guidance we have been given, which is publicly available, talks about ensuring appropriate cleaning is in place in addition to hand sanitisation on the way on and off buses and so on. We do not envisage a need for a significant number of additional bus journeys but it is possible that some may be needed. We are very conscious of the challenges the private sector faces. We put a unique arrangement in place to support the private sector in that we continued to provide 50% funding notwithstanding that we did not access transport for the school year after the schools were closed. Firms also had access to other State supports for paying staff. We sought to ensure that we supported the private bus operators to make sure they would be available to us when schools returned.

Obviously this is not the responsibility of the Department but we are conscious that the other uses of that transport, such as for the tourism industry, have been hit and that transport operators have been challenged and we felt that it was important to put funding in place to support those who provide school transport during this very difficult time.

My next question is just one example of the concerns about which I have contacted by different ethnic minorities. Some 40% of students in a classroom in a Rathkeale school come from Traveller families. The other 60% come from the settled community. Both communities have concerns because members of some families in the area work abroad and are travelling in and out of the country, including to Germany. Travelling is part of their culture. One parent stays behind with the children and the other travels a lot. They are in and out of the UK and Germany. There are concerns in the settled Traveller community and in the settled community. They wonder who will monitor whether these people are self-isolating when they come back. Those with children, in all communities, are wondering how it can be policed in an area like this? It is part of the Traveller culture that the girls do not go to the mainstream secondary school in Rathkeale. They do not want them to mix with the settled children because of their culture. This has been accommodated in the secondary school. A different section of the school is provided for them. In the primary school, this is not provided. Families are finding it very difficult to determine who will monitor all of this, for the sake of the health of all families concerned, when people are travelling in and out of the country.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As far as I am aware, the Government is considering updating the travel advice. It has been made clear that there will be an update regarding travel advice and the arrangements that are to be put in place for isolation and so on. The Department of Education and Skills does not have a role in monitoring the self-isolation of school students or parents.

If a school student is required to isolate after returning from abroad under the circumstances the Deputy set out, after a sun holiday or for whatever reason, he or she should not be permitted to come to school during that self-isolation process.

I will call Deputy McNamara, who has been here for quite a while.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I have a couple of questions for the Department. The Catholic Primary School Management Association, CPSMA, is concerned by the shortfall in what is normally generated through fundraising. Obviously, national schools and other schools across Ireland are regularly involved in fundraising, for example, members of boards of management or parents standing at the end of checkouts and in bagging areas. There is a wide variety of types of fundraising. There will be a shortfall of approximately €46 million at a time when money is most needed in schools. Is it proposed to increase the capitation grant? Mr. Ó Foghlú referred to a scheme to provide sanitation, hot water and so on for schools but is it also proposed to increase the capitation grant to take account of the shortfall?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are engaging closely with school management bodies, which have raised this issue. We are conscious that it is normally spring and early summer when much of the fundraising takes place. No decision has been made on the issue. Our priority is to find funding for the additional expenditure. However, we are conscious that the bodies have been raising this matter with us. We are discussing it with them.

Substitutes are key, and as we have been discussing at this meeting, it is difficult to get substitutes. In recent years, a large number of qualified teachers have gone to the Middle East in particular. Some of them have returned. What mechanism is being proposed? It is difficult to expect graduates who are in demand all over the world to sit around on the off-chance that they will get a few hours here and a few hours there. It is essentially precarious employment for people whose skills are in demand all over the world.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Deputy highlighted the issue of teachers travelling abroad for work. We are finding from our engagement generally with the management bodies that there is a slightly increased availability of teachers this summer. Perhaps graduates are not travelling immediately or perhaps there has been some level of returning. We have a major teacher supply group, which I chair, working through some of the issues, but it is too early to know whether what I just described is anecdotal or an actual trend.

In terms of substitution, what we have been seeking to do in recent years at primary level through the pilot supply panel and sharing substitutes between small schools to make up for teaching principals' administrative days has been to create as many full-time posts as possible. We are looking to enhance such models to enable full-time posts being put in place.

We do not have an undersupply of primary teachers. Our larger challenge is at post-primary level. We published some draft information before Christmas about the supply of teachers and we are consulting stakeholders on it. The difficulty is not with supply but, as the Deputy mentioned, with the availability of irregular work.

The Department is proposing to increase the number of posts so that there is no longer irregular work.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is-----

Is it correct to say the Department is hoping to increase the number of posts?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I apologise, Deputy, as it is difficult to converse across the video link. That is the sort of model we are examining. We are trying to have more full-time posts instead of an irregular occurrence of substitution.

I thank Mr. Ó Foghlú. At a recent meeting, Mr. Alan Mongey of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals said something that surprised me slightly. He said that, if parents took their children abroad during the summer, they should not expect the school gates to be open to them in September. Will Mr. Ó Foghlú confirm that, if children go on holidays in accordance with the laws of this State, they will be able to avail of an education, which is their right, in September?

That is presuming they adhere to all guidelines. At the moment, if one goes to Northern Ireland, goes on holidays from there and comes back there is no requirement to self-isolate. Northern Ireland has now opened up to a wide variety of countries across the world and the advice is that there is no need for self-isolation for people who return via Northern Ireland to this State. It seems to be increasingly unworkable. Can children expect to receive an education if their parents take them abroad for holidays?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

To clarify, this is not my area but I do not think the travel advice relates to where one travels from, it is where one travels to, so if one goes to the North and then one goes to Spain the travel advice still applies as far as I am concerned.

Is Mr. Ó Foghlú saying a person must self-isolate for 14 days?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Yes, whatever it is. If those arrangements remain in place and self-isolation is required then students should not attend school, but after that period of self-isolation they should attend school.

They should attend school.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Yes.

So if their parents bring them abroad they should still go to school.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Provided that they have met all the requirements about self-isolation.

What if they have not?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

It is up to the CMO to advise in relation to health travel and for the Government to decide on that, but if that period of self-isolation is still in place we want children to return to school and we do not want their return delayed because of international travel.

I thank Mr. Ó Foghlú. I might try to come in again at the end.

Thank you for your confident stewardship of the committee this morning, Chair. I also thank the officials from the Department of Education and Skills for their attendance this morning. I wish to ask Mr. Ó Foghlú about the national tendering he mentioned. I am somebody who is quite close to SMEs in the country and I am disappointed that this is going to go to a national tender because it will exclude many smaller businesses who would be close to school governance who would be well able to supply schools. Could he give me any confidence that this tender will be looked at with a view to making sure that as many people as possible can benefit locally? At the end of the day this is public money and we do not want to give overarching support to international companies at the cost of local jobs.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I will ask Mr. Loftus to respond.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Essentially, what we are doing here is setting up a framework, which will have a number of suppliers on it. Our focus here is ensuring that they have the scale and capability to cater for the needs of the school system in 4,000 schools across the country. There has been a very strong interest in the tendering process. As it is a procurement process that is currently under way I am precluded from going into detail on it. What procurement must do is follow procurement procedures and work that through, but our aim in all of this is to make sure that the suppliers on the framework, of which there will be a number, have the capability and standing to actually deliver for the school system so that we can enable schools to reopen at the end of August as planned.

I hope there will be quite a bit of oversight on this because from the look of them, the tenders will be large and it would be a shame if Irish SMEs do not get a full opportunity to tender.

I wish to raise an issue in which I have a family interest. It was stated that 12 schools are getting special supports in terms of accommodation. I wish to raise the Ballygunner Gaelcholáiste, which has been missing two prefabs since March 2018 because the "beast from the east" roared in and dumped snow that led to the collapse of the ceiling in two prefabs and they have not been replaced since. There is still ongoing discussion about it. How are these students going to get back to school with social distancing? I urge the Department to give special attention to that school before the return in September.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

We will clarify that issue for the Deputy. My job as head of the planning and building unit covers 4,000 schools across the country so I do not have the detail on every individual school, but we will respond to the Deputy directly on it.

I appreciate that. I thank Mr. Loftus.

I will return to Mr. Ó Foghlú to ask him about teaching absences and substitute teachers. I asked a question the other day about the number of teachers, like healthcare workers, who might potentially list themselves as either vulnerable or at risk. I asked it to understand what the absence of teachers might be on the return in September. Does he have a list of those teachers? In terms of substitute teachers, has he looked at the number of people who came back and offered themselves to different Departments through the Be On Call for Ireland process? Do we have any plans to use a significant number of people who have declared themselves as willing and able to provide support in these circumstances?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We will be following public sector approaches in relation to staff who are unable to attend because they are at high risk. Full details on high-risk groups are available on the HSE website. There is further work being undertaken in the public sector with the HSE to refine that further and to put a system in place so that there is clarity on which small groups of staff are unable to attend the workplace due to this terrible virus.

In relation to substitution and teacher availability, one thing that was done last summer by a number of post-primary management bodies was an equivalent of Be on Call for Ireland to bring some post-primary teachers home when there were still vacancies arising in July. I think nearly 50 teachers came home from abroad and that was very helpful. We have initial anecdotal evidence that supply may be somewhat enhanced but we recognise, particularly in a post-primary context, there is a challenge. Those are among the issues we are working through with the management bodies and the unions.

School transport has come up a number of times this morning. I noted Deputy Cahill's remarks yesterday in the Dáil about school bus provision in Tipperary. We have a similar situation in Waterford. We have a number of large bus carriers that are supplying public service obligation, PSO, contracts. I have huge concerns about the availability of buses. Mr. Ó Foghlú says that CIÉ is responsible for this but I hope his Department is keeping an overview because I think there will be a significant capacity constraint when September comes.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Bus Éireann is, of course, working on our behalf. We took the unprecedented step of continuing 50% funding for private transport for the duration of the closure of schools. That arrangement had been in place for occasional closed days. As a protection for the industry and to seek that the buses would be available on their return, we continued to fund 50% even though no transport was being provided. That was a significant commitment on behalf of the Department and the State to that group of private bus owners. They were also able to access payments for staff, or staff were able to access them directly if they were laid off. We recognise the challenge because we are part of a wider sector. We are working with Bus Éireann. Not everything is retendered. It is a rolling retendering. They are contacting the groups they have continuing relationships with and they are also tendering. We are listening very closely to the views of the representative bodies about how challenged they are at the moment.

The travel question will be important this morning. To clarify, the guidance from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and public health officials is that there is to be no unnecessary travel but some families will find it necessary to go away for a range of reasons. Obviously, the crucial message is, if that is the case, to be back by mid-August for the purposes of self-isolation for the children going back to school.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is the case unless the travel advice changes. My understanding is that the Government is reviewing that in the next week or two. It is a matter for the Government and the Minister with responsibility for transport to set out the transport policy and then for that to be followed and implemented.

Like many other parents of children going to school or hoping to go to school in September, I have been watching these proceedings for a number of months to try to get some clarity around how schools are opening. Even listening today, I am not 100% sure what the exact plan is or when all schools will be open. Will they open two, three, four or five days per week? What will be the shape of the school day for those children? Parents need to know as quickly as possible.

They should have known at this stage.

While I understand that things can change, I would like to know whether children are going to start on a two-day week, a three-day week or a full week. Will they have to wear masks or in some cases visors? As Mr. Ó Foghlú and every Deputy here is aware, schools are bursting at the seams because there are too many children in the classrooms. If we try to impose social distancing, the capacity will not be not there in the school buildings for children, teachers or SNAs. We know of cases of SNAs who are allocated to a number of children. Will they have to change PPE equipment on a continuous basis during those weeks?

I have not heard any major clarification of the way the schools are going to be run, although it may have been provided earlier. What is going to happen with classrooms that are already filled to capacity? I heard mention earlier of a framework that would enable the private sector to help out in delivering extra classrooms or whatever, but it is a very short timeframe if that is to happen between now and the start of September. In some cases there is no physical space left. They will not all be put into a yard, especially in light of the problems with the yards themselves. How many children will be allowed into the yard at a given time? How many teachers and SNAs will have to be there to ensure social distancing during yard time? Does that mean staggered times in the yard?

Those are my first few questions. I have others on the matter of children who need additional supports.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As I said at the start, we welcome the opportunity to be here. Our key message this morning is that the reopening of schools is the number one priority for the Department. I can assure the Deputy that it is the number one thing the Minister has been discussing since her arrival two weeks ago. That the school sector is to reopen schooling as fully, normally and safely as possible at the start of the new school year is a very important message to send out.

We do not envisage widespread blended learning or reduced opening. We really are aiming to open as fully, normally and safely as possible. I have provided clarity on masks; we do not envisage students wearing masks in schools. The only possible situation where we are reflecting on the health guidance that we have is that there would be some mask wearing for older students on school transport. The preferred form of PPE for members of staff who need to be closer to students in the classroom would be visors. A visor retains the vital interaction of facial expression, which is perhaps diminished in the video-conferencing context here but is really important in the schooling context. We envisage that visors would be the most important aspect of PPE for members of staff, particularly SNAs who need to work very closely with students in a learning environment.

On classrooms and capacity, we really want to maximise all classroom space, as Mr. Loftus has said. We are looking at potential room layouts, again in partnership with school management bodies and teacher unions, in order to have a demonstration of such matters in the guidance regarding the options schools can look at, which we plan to issue by the end of July.

The guidance will also cover other issues mentioned by the Deputy, such as supervision outside of the classroom where social distancing is very important. It is important that groups of children from separate classes are kept apart as much as possible in the school environment.

There is a difficulty here. At our meetings in this Chamber and in the Convention Centre, we have a 2 m rule. That is virtually impossible in schools, especially in old classrooms, even if the distance is reduced to 1 m. In some classrooms, the teacher basically sits on top of the students because there are 30 students per classroom. This cannot be physically expanded unless we start knocking down buildings or using the hallways and so on.

There are huge difficulties and while I understand them, Mr. Ó Foghlú is saying the Department intends to open schools as fully as possible. A number of schools, especially older builds, which are not capable of opening with a full class, based on having 25 or 30 children in the one class in primary school. In secondary school, children move from one classroom to another because they take different specialist subjects, especially in junior certificate and leaving certificate classes. Guidelines need to be as clear as possible and as I am speaking on guidelines, tá súil agam go mbeidh chuile treoirlíne atá á eisiúint amach anseo go huile agus go hiomlán ar fáil as Gaeilge do Ghaelcholáistí agus Gaelscoileanna agus na foirne sna scoileanna sin.

The additional question I hinted at relates to the additional supports required by students who have underlying health issues or who have become distanced from education during this period. They may have been in a routine but have now become distanced. Is there a plan for those additional supports, such as breakfast clubs, after-school homework clubs and so on? Are they part of the plan to capture those who have fallen back a little or who will always require additional support based on their health or other needs? What is the plan in this regards?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Mar a luaigh an Teachta, tá fíor-iarracht á dhéanamh againn chun treoirlínte a chur amach i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla ag an am céanna. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sé deacair nuair atáimid ag obair leis na grúpaí ar fad go dtí an t-am deireanach, ach tá fíor-iarracht ann é sin a dhéanamh agus is féidir leis an Teachta glacadh leis go ndéanfaimid sin más féidir linn.

The Deputy highlighted a number of issues relating to distance within classrooms and so on. Those issues are addressed in the guidance that has been given to us but we have to work up the guidelines for schools and are seeking to do so. There is different guidance for different age groups in primary schools and different guidance again for post-primary. There is a change in the concept of distance between desks to also focusing on distances between pupils and the distance between the teacher and the students. We are working all of those through and are happy that the guidance will cover different layouts. We will have to maximise all the space in classrooms and that will be a big issue for us.

I will bring in Ms Tansey on well-being and bringing students with us when they re-enter schools. It is an important issue to mention to the committee in the context of the Deputy's question on students being distanced from schools on their return.

Ms Anne Tansey

We have been considering the well-being of the school community and our students and pupils as we plan for the reopening of schools. We expect a broad range of responses when we go back to school, ranging from children and their parents being happy and relieved to get back to school to some children being fearful and nervous. We have taken advice from the HSE and the Department of Health regarding the best approach to support these children as they return to school and they have advised us in two ways. First, they have advised that the approach we use should be underpinned by the promotion of a sense of safety, connectedness, calm and hope within the school community and within everything we do. Second, they have advised that we put in place a graduated, tiered level of responses, which range from a universal approach to targeted responses for children with greater need and those with a need for individual support. That is what we are planning in that respect. We are planning to accept and communicate the need to normalise the range of feelings children will experience. We need to put proactive strategies in place for well-being as we return to school and have a settling-in period where children can readjust, rebuild the connections and relationships they previously had in school and reconnect with their friends and learning in school before they settle into learning.

We are planning for a range of supports that will be available for those children who struggle to come back to school. There will be children who are reluctant school attenders and children who have experienced loss, grief and bereavement during the period of school closure. There are vulnerable groups that we know of already, such as children with special educational needs and other children who are vulnerable. We are planning a range of supports for these children, working through the structures that exist in schools, including the student support team structure at post-primary level and the special education teams at post-primary and primary levels.

NEPS psychologists will work to support these structures in schools. We will seek to build capacity with the other service providers at the Department of Education and Skills and with colleagues in the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs. We are working with our HSE colleagues to ensure a range of individual supports are available for those children who present with the greatest need and who continue to struggle and need more individualised support. We have ongoing engagement with our colleagues at the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure a range of supports is available for our children as we plan the return to school.

I have another brief question and I ask for an answer in writing because I am over my time. It is with regard to Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcholáistí. There has been a shortage of relief teachers. What can be done to ensure there are no vacancies in the schools when they reopen?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We will respond on that in writing.

I thank the Secretary General and his officials for coming before the committee. They have answered a wide range of questions. I refer to the very sobering comments by the acting Chief Medical Officer that we are in the middle of a changing environment and I accept that the Department is planning within this. I also accept there are many parts within the school community, which can make it very difficult to make predictions. Many parents are watching this and they have heard the phrase "as fully as possible". Are officials planning for full school days from September?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is what we are planning towards but there are challenges in doing that.

I accept there are challenges but if everybody knows that is where we are heading, it will allow parents, the school community, teachers, special needs assistants and caretakers to aim towards it with the greatest of support.

There was some criticism of the interim advice that was issued. Was consideration given to not issuing that advice at that time? In many ways, it seems to have caused greater concern rather than answering the questions that were out there.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Deputy has raised an interesting issue. The call that we made, along with the Minister, was that we had received the interim guidance a few days before and if we had held onto it without letting the stakeholders know, where letting the stakeholders know means public reflection on it, then people would have said that we were withholding the advice and they could not have a proper debate on it. We were very conscious that this committee's debates on education were due to start the following day and we did not want to hold back on information.

The Deputy made a point on communications. With regard to reopening schools as fully as possible, we are very conscious of the importance for society as a whole to plan for this in the public environment. We are conscious this gives rise to criticism when we cannot answer all of the questions in detail but we need to work them through. If we were doing this in absolute secret, we would be open to a lot more criticism. The real question is what was the alternative.

I accept the difficult position the Department is in but as we go forward communication will be key.

On the question of space, which, to be fair, Mr. Ó Foghlú has answered quite comprehensively, there are two schools in my constituency which come to my mind and which will have difficulties, namely, St. Brigid's girls' national school, which has no assembly hall at all, which in turn will make it very difficult for it to have any sort of expansion space, and a new school I helped support, Clonturk community college, which had been seeking a place on the school building programme long before Covid. I hope Mr. Ó Foghlú will look at both those cases and perhaps come back to me in writing. I do not expect him to have them in front of him.

I wish to address one issue which the Secretary General did not raise. I would like him to put it to bed comprehensively if he can. I refer to the very dangerous suggestion by an Teachta Farrell of Sinn Féin when she dangled the term "liability" in front of the committee. That is really dangerous and I think it will prevent people from taking the common-sense decisions that will help us all return to work. I do not believe there is a liability on the school or teachers if they act responsibly. There is no liability in respect of other infectious diseases and there certainly should not be in the case of Covid. The idea is that we are all in this together, not we are all in this together once we bring our solicitors with us.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I do not wish to respond specifically to that. To be fair to all Deputies, though, this is a huge topic of debate in society at the moment, and it is appropriate that we have every issue raised with us from whatever angle. Today's sitting is a very important opportunity for us to come before the committee with confidence to discuss what we are trying to do. We will come back to Deputy McAuliffe on those two schools. We have to work through logistical challenges. We do not want to come with partial solutions or to drip-feed. We want to come with an announcement on the next phase and we want to do so in partnership with everybody we are working with. The political system is a key part of that.

I accept that, but can the Secretary General confirm that schools do not have a legal liability for somebody who comes into contact with an infectious disease in his or her school?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I can neither confirm nor deny that. It is a legal matter. Our guidance is that everybody has to do the best he or she can. There is a personal responsibility and a school responsibility here, and the Department has to support people in that regard. A real change of behaviour is needed, and I do not think we have fully got it yet because many of us are still working from home and staying at home. We used to force ourselves out to work or school if we had a runny nose or a cough. We need to change that behaviour. We have it inside ourselves, I think, that we are mitching off or something if we do that, but that is what we have to change. The real behaviour is the personal change in behaviour not to put oneself forward. Schooling will be different in the approach taken because of all the sanitising, cleaning and so on, but we also need to keep the classroom, the learning experience and the interaction between students. That is hugely valuable. We need to find some way to get that going and keep encouraging it. Within all those parameters, I do not see this as a legal issue primarily but rather as a societal issue. We can enable everybody to come back into learning to the fullest-----

I fully agree with the Secretary General that this is about us all working together, but I believe that if we do not put to bed the idea that schools could be liable, we will have difficulties because people will have concerns. We have to provide that reassurance because I do not think it exists. If people act responsibility and carry out their work within the common-sense guidelines issued by the Government, I cannot see how a legal liability exists, but we have to make sure we communicate that to schools.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I agree with the Deputy that it is hard to see how a legal liability exists in the circumstances he has set out.

I will move on to the issue of additional staffing, which was mentioned. There are three categories of workers in the school community who I think often feel very undervalued. They are caretakers, particularly those who are on a caretaker's grant, school secretaries and special needs assistants, SNAs. If there is any call for additional employment in schools, we have to make sure we do not further reduce the morale of those in the three categories to which I referred.

In comparison to teachers, they feel like they are the ones who are often left out in terms of pay and conditions.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I do not want to get into commenting about pay and conditions. Obviously, there are a range of different engagements which were going on prior to the election and which are recommencing at present. What is most important from our point of view - the Minister has been clear in reflecting on this in our discussions with her on school reopening - is that we are not talking about teachers, SNAs, caretakers or secretaries. We are talking about the school staff and the school community as a whole. That is the important outlook to have.

I appreciate that. However, I have been contacted by caretakers who are on the caretaker's grant and are now on a reduced Covid payment or unable to access a Covid payment. We must consider the precarious nature of the employment of some of those caretakers because they often have additional employment which is no longer available to them.

I will move to the issue of technology. While other countries had a national digital learning platform which was able to be deployed during the lockdown, that was not available to us. I can understand that might not have been possible. Is the Department planning for such a platform for any possible future lockdown or local lockdowns which may apply, because it is something that was absent, and that did not help in the education process?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are looking at a range of contingencies. One absolute is a reduced curriculum and some reduction in assessment for the next school year. A second is we have to look at options and potential options where there are possible issues such as the Deputy outlined. We are all following the progress of this virus day by day and week by week.

There are big shortcomings with the assumption that a national digital learning platform works for everyone, because it does not. We cannot invent broadband on a national basis overnight. There is a serious Government commitment to doing that, but that will take a little time. The contingency planning is looking at a range of issues. The main interaction, even within a school closure, has proven to be the engagement between the teachers in the school and the students, and we have to maintain that. It can be backed up and supplemented by some national available learning which may also have to be available not only online but in other materials, whether it is DVDs or on paper. We are exploring options like that, but we cannot remove the school in the context of any school closure from its responsibility for the interaction. I say that negatively. Schools do not want to be removed from that interaction. Schools have shown in recent months how they want to step up. We have undertaken a range of research about this and others have undertaken research. I accept there were gaps, but on the whole, schools have tried really hard. However, it does not make up for the face-to-face learning environment, and that is what is really important to bring back. That is our priority.

I wish Mr. Ó Foghlú the very best of luck in the challenge ahead. I have no doubt it is a difficult challenge, both for the Department and the entire school community. However, I think we can get children back to school by working together and I support the work Mr. Ó Foghlú is doing.

Maybe Deputy Shanahan would go ahead first.

The earnestness of Mr. Ó Foghlú and his colleagues today and their commitment has shone through. That is not to take from any previous civil servants here but it is plain to see that the Department is focused on trying to get as much of a solution provided as possible.

With respect to the previous conversation regarding the use of technology, the following is probably something for the future. To try to look at the degrees of variance that exist in teaching and understanding the challenges that we probably will have in the classroom in September, is there an opportunity for some of the curricula to be recorded online and presented, have that accessed in schools and let the teachers facilitate learning? The children, as Mr. Ó Foghlú will be aware, are now accessing videos on their phones, morning, noon and night. They are quite open to gaining information that way.

It would at least allow the curriculum to be rolled out at the same time to all students in the country.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That has some use, but it is limited. There is much pedagogy regarding what works in this situation. We have a major pilot project under way in the context of Irish-medium schools. We are trying to have some interaction for subjects available in some Gaeltacht second level schools with other Gaeltacht second level schools and we are working through the challenges. Therefore, the answer is "Yes". The other problem is that all schools do not follow the curriculum at the same pace and at the same time. There is some value in having a recorded curriculum for revision purposes and for an absence of schools in extremis, but that is in no way a substitute for ordinary regular schooling.

As the Department manages the return to schools and tries to chart infection control, I wonder if it could liaise with the Department of Health to examine whether it might be possible to have expedited testing for teachers or children who have Covid-19 symptoms. It will be important to do that as quickly as possible in a school setting and rapidly identify the close contacts. I am not sure if that is something the Department has examined, but I highly recommend it.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The State's overall approach is to do that as speedily as possible in the school context. I would not assume that a case in a school will mean that school closes. With these new arrangements, that decision will be made on a case-by-case basis by the health authorities. Those initial schools that closed made a call in one way, but we will have a different regime in place as schools open and a decision may be made that a group in a class, a class or some staff members should not attend. We must wait and see, because this is all about the scenario where and how it arises. We do, however, need that testing regime so that we can get back in quickly.

Mr. Alan Mongey has asked me to clarify exactly what he said the last day and I am very happy to do that. Turning to the transcript, he stated 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." He continued by stating "This is all about trying to keep Covid-19 out of schools and trying to maintain safe, healthy practices within schools." I am very happy to clarify that for Mr. Mongey.

There are various projections about what will happen in September, but based on current preparedness in the Department and in schools and current rates of infection, what is the most likely scenario? Is it that every school will return at the end of August for five full school days? Is it anticipated that it will be possible to have early drop-offs and homework clubs after school?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is our overall objective. We are further along the road in doing that at primary level and we still have some further logistical challenges to work through at post-primary level. There will be variances in approaches regarding the times of starting schools etc. and we will have to work through those issues. That will involve starting off breakfast clubs and after-school care, where those options exist, either immediately or over time. The Deputy has, however, certainly set out our high-level objective. We do not want to open-----

Expectations are different things.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As I said, we are very confident at primary level. We recognise we have more logistical challenges to work through at post-primary level, but we are working through those and we are in intensive discussions with the stakeholders regarding that aspect.

I thank Mr. Ó Foghlú for that clarification. If I am correct in my understanding of what was said to Deputy Costello earlier, it is enrolment at a particular time that determines the number of teachers. That is an acute issue in smaller schools. It is not how many children are in the school at the beginning of September that counts, but the number that were enrolled previously. Is that correct?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Enrolments on 30 September dictate staffing for schools.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

In the new Covid-19 environment in which we will be operating, if there are students enrolled in a school who cannot attend for reasons related to Covid-19, the Department will have to be flexible concerning how that situation is managed.

There is the "cannot" aspect, but will some flexibility be demonstrated if parents decide it is borderline whether their child will go to school in September or wait for another 12 months?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

If it is a school age issue, the requirement to attend is a matter for the parent. If it is somebody starting primary school for the first time and there is a call-----

If the student is enrolled and subsequently does not go to school in September, the staffing ratios are effectively set at this stage.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

The key issue is for students who are enrolled in the school and who then during September or at the end of September are unable to attend for Covid-19 reasons, obviously there will be flexibility-----

Is the number of teachers every school will have in September next already set, regardless of whether parents send their children or whether they decide to hold them back for a year?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The answer is "Yes". However, if a number of students who have enrolled do not turn up, then that might be reviewed.

I have a couple of questions and observations from the session. I ask you to keep your answers as short as possible - some of them will be simply "Yes" or "No" answers - because we have to exit at 11.30 a.m.

On what you said about additional staff, can you confirm that those coming out of the teaching colleges now will be the main source of any additional staff needed over the next period?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As the Acting Chair knows, civil servants do not like "Yes" or "No" answers. They are a main source but there may be other main sources. There may be people who have come out of college in recent years who have not got full-time jobs and there may be people who have returned from abroad.

In terms of certainty for those people coming out, can they expect employment?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

They can certainly expect employment in a post-primary context. In a primary context, we have an oversupply.

We talked about immunosuppression earlier. A case brought to my attention, and which I raised at this committee previously, was of a teacher who has a new baby who is immunocompromised with cystic fibrosis and who obviously was not in that situation 12 months ago and did not know that would be the case. Can you confirm what arrangements are in place, or what is the thinking in respect of, those teachers who have found themselves in this new situation going into the school year?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We will have to follow the public sector guidance which is based on health advice which, as far as I am aware, relates to the health of the member of staff. I am not sure if exceptions are made for the children of members of staff. I do not think they are but we can clarify that for you.

I suggest that it is an important question and I would greatly appreciate if you could come back to me with an answer on it.

Mental health supports were raised, and I thank Ms Tansey for highlighting the work being done. Much emotional support will be needed by different children going back to school, which may, in the early days, take priority over complicated long division or whatever to settle children back in. Are you working with the colleges of education to provide any additional psychotherapy or play therapy supports for teachers as they cope with an increased emotional burden among the children coming back into their care?

Ms Anne Tansey

We are expecting that while there may be some levels of anxiety and worry about the return to school, we expect that most children will come to school and that they will, after a settling in period, settle back in to, and re-engage with, learning. The approach we are taking is to support schools in how best to provide that universal response that we are advocating, which is proactively looking at re-establishing good routines, healthy eating, taking exercise, and being creative. We are recommending that schools give students time to tell their stories and to express either narratively or through creative activities their own experiences of Covid-19 and to accept and be tolerant of all children's experiences in that respect. This is something that with support all teachers can provide and these are the types of universal interventions that are needed to return children to regular learning within the school setting.

People are naturally resilient and most of us will adapt when we are provided with practical and empathetic supports. That is what we are largely advocating within the school setting and we will support teachers with that through our own support services and through our engagement with schools as they reopen.

I completely agree with that. It is not just about when they go back but about how they go back and the time allowed for that adjustment is crucial. That is really important work.

Has thought been given to conducting cross-curricular work in the open air? From the perspective of greater ventilation there is a need to get children outside rather then have them sit in an indoor classroom for an extended period. Children could learn maths, Irish, etc. outdoors. Are alternative learning mechanisms being considered?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is not specifically addressed in the guidelines. We would always encourage schools to do that to the extent that they can, and to the extent that they can continue to follow guidelines. Obviously we cannot be overly prescriptive with that with the weather context.

I want to talk about fifth year students who have had their education truncated this year and are going into a leaving certificate year. Has special consideration been given to how they will face their leaving certificate year having lost considerable time this year?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have, absolutely, considered this. To return to the issue of not all of the curriculum being advanced at the same time in every school, a review is under way of which we will have an outcome by the end of July, as part of the guidelines. We are looking at how we will have to change the leaving certificate and junior cycle assessment on a once-off basis in 2021 because of the closure, and how we will ensure that the assessment techniques used in the leaving certificate have regard to the fact that courses will not have been covered to the same extent.

The Department is not responsible for private schools but they clearly must implement the new guidelines the same as everyone else. Has the Department liaised with representatives from private schools, particularly the primary schools?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

No. We do not have a link with private primary schools. They will be able to follow the same guidance that we issue. It will not be confidential guidance. We do not have an inspector or any other link with private primary schools.

Is there an organisation that represents them?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As I said, we do not have a link with them. We may bring back a link now that we are responsible for education and welfare, and are responsible for a certain minimum education, which is currently with Tusla. We are probably bringing back a policy link for that very basic check about the certain minimum education that Tusla undertakes. The Department has not engaged with them. We will not support them in any way but they can use our materials.

I wish to ask a practical question about the dropping-off and collection of children from the same family where there is either blended learning or school attendance for only a certain number of days. I ask that schools make every effort to organise drop-off and collection by siblings or grouped surnames so that a single parent, possibly a working parent, who may already have difficulty getting back to work, does not have to do two or three different drop-offs on certain days or whatever so that families can organise themselves as best they can.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Acting Chairman has highlighted a very important issue that has been part of our stakeholder engagement. It is about the engagement by schools with their local community. We will make it form part of our guidelines that there is a need, in planning for how the schools address Covid and any arrangements that they put in place, for them to have a means of dialogue with their local community. The example given by the Acting Chairman clearly shows why it is very important that schools reopen as it will enable people to return to work but it has to be done in a way that does not diminish that return.

One of the very important workplace changes that we all must get used to is what Mr. Ó Foghlú alluded to earlier about adopting a different culture whereby one does not go to work if one has a runny nose or cough. Also, there must be an expectation in the workforce that it is okay for a parent to stay home when his or her child has a runny nose or cough. We will all have to adopt a different view on such action for the next period.

Engagement by schools and teachers during the lockdown period was mentioned. We thank all of the teachers and schools who engaged and they did it very well. However, there were mixed reports from schools in different areas, including a mixed picture in my own constituency. On the basis that there is a resurgence of Covid-19, which would be extremely unwelcome but foreseeable at some point in the future, will the Department provide for a co-ordinated response by schools in the event of a further lockdown?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We will be providing stronger guidance and support.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance today. I wish them the very best of luck with all of their hard work over the next number of weeks and hope that it goes incredibly well for everybody.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I thank the Acting Chairman and Deputies.

We will suspend until 12 noon when we will meet representatives of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland for an update on congregated settings and meat plants.

Sitting suspended at 11.35 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.
Deputy Michael McNamara took the Chair.