That is fine. The NPCP welcomes the opportunity to make its submission to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response regarding the reopening and operation of primary schools. While the NPCP believes that there are many considerations in the context of the reopening of schools, this submission will focus on what we believe are the top four key issues. To support this submission to the special committee, the NPCP conducted a snap 24-hour survey on Thursday last, 25 June, to which 28,744 people responded.
The first issue is partnership. Planning for reopening and operation at national policy level and at school level must be done in partnership with all stakeholders. While this has started at national level, it is vital that the reopening of schools at a local level also takes place in partnership. For the whole school community to feel safe in the return to school, children, parents, school staff and the board of management need to have input into the local arrangements that will be made in that individual school context. Better outcomes will be arrived at when all voices are taken into consideration regarding the challenges and solutions in the local setting. This may include: the establishment of a stakeholder partnership team of students, parents, representatives from the parents' association, where one exists, school staff and representatives from the board of management; a survey of parents, children and school staff; and agreed local procedures for behaviour, particularly those relating to Covid-19, and adherence to public health advice. This should all be within the context of schools' existing code of behaviour.
The survey looked at several areas concerning local and national planning. At national level, parents were asked how important it was that their children returned to school fully at the beginning of the new school year. The survey found that 91% of parents said that this was important or very important, with 20% stating it was important and 71% stating it was very important, while 8% felt that it was slightly important or not important.
At a local level, when asked what was the best way to involve parents in planning for the reopening of their children's schools, 67% indicated that the school should conduct a parent survey and 35% said the planning should involve the parents association.
The second issue that emerged from the survey is the need for all schools to be resourced and supported to identify and assist those children for whom the long school closure may have had a greater impact than it had on others. This support could include efforts to do with learning, social or emotional impacts. While schools might already know of children who fit into this category before the closure, children's lives may have been impacted in ways their schools are unaware of during the six months since they will have seen the pupils and their families. Negative events happen in the normal course of life. However, under the current circumstances and restrictions, families will have had an increased possibility of being affected by serious illness, bereavement and family relationship issues. Due to the closure, schools may be unaware of these events.
The survey addressed some specific issues relevant to this area. Specifically, parents were asked what the impact of a blended learning return to school might have on their child with a special educational need or on children who are transitioning from primary to post-primary school. A total of 84% of parents who have a child with a special educational need indicated that it would be somewhat or extremely difficult if their child were to return to school with blended learning in place. A total of 83% of parents responded that it would be somewhat or extremely difficult for their child to settle into their new school if blended learning was in place during transition.
The third area of prioritisation to emerge from the survey is the need for the social and emotional needs of the school community to be addressed in the first instance of schools' reopening. While curriculum learning is usually the core business of the school, this will not be successful if pupils' social and emotional needs are not addressed first. The whole school community will need support in this area. Parents need reassurance that their children will be safe. Children will need to know they are safe, they will need to reconnect with school life and routine, and they will need support in the changed environment. School staff will also need to know they are safe and supported. These are just a few of the aspects that will need attention. In the initial stages of their reopening, schools will need support and resources to help them through this work. This should include the existing supports provided by the National Educational Psychological Service in regard to well-being, with adaptations and enhancements where needed.
The importance of meeting the needs of students informed several questions in the survey. Parents were asked to rate the importance of a number of statements relating to different types of needs. While the respondents felt all the statements were important, some were deemed more important than others when it came to their child's return to school. The top statement of importance was that their child should feel safe, followed by, in order of importance, socialising and reconnecting with friends, the child's emotional needs being met, school staff feeling safe, parents feeling safe and, lastly, the importance of children catching up with their academic work.
When asked about their child's anxiety levels regarding the return to school, the majority - 62% - of parents rated their child's anxiety below five on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the most anxious. However, it is worrying that 3,528 respondents, or 13%, rated their child's anxiety at eight or above. The survey also asked if parents felt their child would need additional support from outside of the family to help with anxiety on his or her return to school, to which 11%, or 3,085 respondents, said their child would need such support. Of that 11%, the majority - 64% - felt their child would need individual support from their teacher. However, 45% felt their child would need professional therapeutic supports to help them cope with their anxiety.
The fourth theme emerging from the survey is that children and parents need certainty about the structure of the school day and school week. Parents have raised concerns with us regarding the possibilities of shorter days and-or weeks and blended learning. The logistical minefield such arrangements would bring for families will, in some cases, make it impossible for children to return to school however much they and their parents want this to happen. The survey looked at specific issues for parents regarding blended learning and how they feel it might impact on their child's motivation in terms of their learning at home. A total of 72% of parents felt their children would be only slightly motivated or not at all motivated to learn at home, with 28% reporting that their children would be very motivated or motivated to learn at home. This raises concerns as to whether there would be blended learning actually taking place or if, in effect, pupils would be doing a shortened school week.