As the Deputy will be aware, on 27 July last, the Government published the Roadmap for the Full Return to School, along with details of a significant financial package to support the implementation of the measures in the roadmap, following approval by the Government. The package of supports were expected to cost in excess of €437 million in the 2020/2021 school year. Revised public health advice to reduce the capacity on school transport led to further additional costs of €15 million in 2020.
The range of supports being made available to schools includes financial supports to provide for additional staffing, management supports, enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene and personal protective equipment costs under the Covid-19 response plans, school transport, the continuation of additional educational psychological services to provide for well-being supports, etc.
The Government also approved a package of minor works grants amounting to €75 million as part of the July Stimulus to support schools to prepare their buildings and classrooms for reopening. An additional €105 million was subsequently announced for 2020 which will facilitate the bringing forward of an ICT grant for all schools and early payment of minor works grant for primary schools planned for 2021. The additional funding of €25m for payment of an exceptional Minor Works Grant at post primary school level for school year 2021/2022 will be paid out in December 2020. This will support schools managing in the Covid environment and greatly assist schools in creating additional capacity to support physical distancing arrangements through enabling more substantive reconfiguration work in buildings.
In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a Geographical Information System (GIS). The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including Child Benefit Data from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department's own school enrolment databases, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise.
The process has been strengthened this year through three specific initiatives:
(i) enhanced engagement with local authorities in relation to the information on residential development incorporated in the analysis process;
(ii) additional engagement with patron bodies in relation to their local knowledge on school place requirements. Education and Training Boards, Diocesan offices and national patron bodies such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta etc. can also be an important source of local knowledge. This will add to information also provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools.
(iii) utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of POD, P-POD returns process.
Similar to the process adopted for September 2020 readiness, the Department will be engaging further with patron bodies shortly in advance of identifying specific September 2021 capacity pressure points priorities which will necessitate specific action.
In a ‘normal’ year, addressing the increase demands for school places, whilst challenging, is manageable – generally through utilisation of existing spare capacity within schools, rental, temporary accommodation or other short term measures pending the delivery of permanent accommodation.