Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

School Equipment

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


25. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if specific, revised guidance will be provided on ventilation in the winter months; and if she will be providing additional funding to schools for the purchase of air monitoring systems and to make up for additional heating costs. [39970/20]

It has become very clear from the science in recent months that ventilation is one of the key factors in tackling Covid-19. At this time of year, with the Irish winter, the cold is becoming very significant. That is not as much of an issue for some modern schools and school buildings as it is for schools with older buildings. Principals are having to make difficult choices with limited or in some instances no guidance on how to manage this matter. It puts pressure on heating bills and leads to tough decisions about how to communicate to parents the guidance to give their children.

Practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices were provided to the school system in August, in the context of reopening for September 2020. Contrary to what the Deputy said, this guidance has recently been reviewed and was circulated to the education partners. The updated guidance has now been published.

As regards good ventilation practices in schools, it is important, particularly as we get further into winter, that we achieve an appropriate balance between good ventilation and comfort. The overall approach for schools should be to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use, for example, during break times, lunchtime and at the end of each school day, and partially open when classrooms are in use to achieve appropriate airflow. It is worth noting that windows do not need to be open as wide in windy or colder weather in order to achieve the same level of airflow into the classroom. This will assist in managing comfort levels in classrooms, including those in prefabricated accommodation, during periods of colder weather.

As part of managing comfort levels in classrooms, schools should check that their heating systems are set at the recommended manufacturer's guidance levels to maximise the heat available to the school. In addition, heating should operate for extended periods during colder weather to counteract, as best as possible, the impact of windows being open in order to maintain an appropriate balance between ventilation and comfort levels.

My Department has reviewed the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidance recommending that consideration be given to installing indoor air quality monitors in classrooms. The purpose of a monitor in this context is to assist in determining when windows should be opened. It should be noted that an air monitor would not increase the air temperature in a classroom. As reflected in the updated guidance, my Department has concluded that it will likely be necessary for windows to be open at the frequency I outlined earlier to ensure appropriate levels of ventilation in classrooms, irrespective of whether the opening of windows is prompted by an indoor air quality monitor, which is a reactive approach, or through the proactive approach outlined in the guidance. While this matter, as well as supporting data, will be kept under review, the Department does not consider it necessary for schools to install such monitors in classrooms where the practical steps outlined in the updated guidance are applied. However, it is a matter for individual schools to consider whether they wish to put in place mechanisms of this nature.

That is an interesting reply and there is much in it to consider. I would make one point, of which I am sure the Minister is very aware as principals certainly raise it with me. I am aware of the updated guidance but it is still the case that windows must be open, although the guidance states the times and extent to which that should be done. Older buildings, examples of which the Minister can think herself, such as those in Christian Brothers schools, were built in the 1950s and 1960s and were not designed for these situations, even if they were renovated. Children sit next to the window in coats and with hot water bottles and so on. It is a real dilemma for principals, even in the current context. Air monitoring is essential. It would assist in keeping budgets down by ensuring schools strike the right balance between windows being open and heating. It would ensure windows were not open unnecessarily and that schools get that balance right based on the information available. It sounds like the Minister is not ruling air monitors out. I welcome that but will she state if that is the case? If I am right about that I welcome it, but it is a pity given that the ideal opportunity to install such monitors is over the Christmas break, when schools will be closed in any event. If this is something the Department is going to do, the ideal avenue and space in which to do it is coming up.

I appreciate the Deputy's point. In the interest of balance and proper context, no building has been built for a Covid-19 environment. This issue is not unique to what is happening in the school environment. It is happening in every building of which we are aware. I again emphasise that air monitors do not increase the air temperature in a room. They merely monitor when one should open or close a window. Significant practical guidance has been given to schools around measures of that nature, such as opening windows before classes commence, during break times, lunchtimes, in the evenings, and so on. I appreciate that such measures are reliant on an abundance of practical common sense and practicality but, in my experience, there is an abundance of that in schools as is. Schools have the freedom to use the minor works grant to address this issue but as I have said to the Deputy, I will keep everything under review. I will do that constantly for anything as regards education.

The Minister said that an air monitor does not increase the temperature of a room but only shows when the windows need to be open. By extension, it also shows when the windows do not need to be open, which would be very useful to many schools that are trying to manage the situation and ensure the welfare of the children in their care, by protecting them from Covid and other types of illness. I will take it from her answer that the Minister is not ruling such measures out but I ask her to go back to the HPSC and to continue to examine this. Air monitors would be of value and the perfect opportunity is there over the Christmas break for people to go into the schools and install them.

I have raised my final point with the Minister previously. It seems inevitable that additional money will be required for the ordinary school budget and the capitation grant early in the new year. Heating costs are going up and so are refuse costs, due to PPE, wipes, sanitiser and so on. Fundraising has inevitably fallen, and there is also the cost of room hire to consider. Will additional funding and capitation be provided to schools within this school year and if so, when?

To go back to the air monitors, I am very confident of the practicality that exists in every classroom and I am confident about how ventilation is being operated by the school community. I reiterate that this issue is being dealt with by many bodies and many buildings have to cope with similar situations at present.

As the Deputy will be aware, the capitation grant increased by 2.5% in the budget for 2020-21, which is on top of a 5% increase in the previous year. I intend, if at all possible, to continue the trajectory of that increase going forward. That is important. Equally, substantial funding has gone into schools to address measures of a Covid-19 nature. That has helped schools considerably to do what needs to be done.

Schools Administration

Matt Shanahan


26. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Education if the administration day currently allowed per week to teaching principals will be maintained into 2021; if there is a provision within the education service plan to support same going forward; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40021/20]

Will the administration day that is currently allowed to teaching principals be maintained into 2021 and, ideally, beyond that? All school principals are facing a very significant workload and Covid has only highlighted how difficult that is. There is a huge body of administration work to be done. Does the Minister have any thoughts on that?

I acknowledge the huge contribution made by all school leaders, particularly during this academic year as they continue to work to ensure schools can operate safely. The Roadmap for the Full Return to School provides for comprehensive supports across a range of areas to allow for the safe and sustainable operation of schools. This package of supports totals some €557 million for the 2020-2021 school year and includes funding for additional staffing, management supports, enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment costs and increased capital works funding for schools under the Covid-19 response plans. As part of this additional funding, specific funding was provided, as the Deputy pointed out, to support principals and deputy principals who undertake teaching duties in primary schools.

This funding provides each teaching principal with a minimum of one release day per week and release days for deputy principals in those schools that have an existing administrative principal for this school year. More than 1,700 primary schools with teaching principals have benefitted from the increase in release days.

These supports will remain in place for the remainder of this school year and the continuation of these supports will be considered as part of the ongoing measures required to support schools to operate in a Covid-19 context and to implement the control measure required to limit the spread of Covid-19 in our schools in line with public health advice and the annual estimates process for the next academic year.

As the Minister notes, a great deal of work has been done by principals, deputy principals and boards of management. Looking at any school with 200 or 300 pupils, one can see the additional workload around procurement for Covid. I also wish to highlight the problem of recruiting people from assistant principal to take on the principals' workloads. Many assistant principals regard it as an onerous task. The administration of the role and how it is done needs to be examined.

I suggest the Department considers ongoing training, say in procurement or business consulting, for principals. It is very unfair that people can be elevated into a position that they might not have wanted to take but they felt responsible and now they find themselves in the middle of all these other governance issues which they have probably not been exposed to before.

I appreciate the huge workload placed on the shoulders of school leaders and school communities. I recognise the importance of these additional days and how beneficial they have been. Now they have been given, we can see the excellent use to which they were put and how necessary a provision they were. The Department showed considerable foresight in putting them in place. I in no way underestimate their benefit or value. We will review the Covid-19 measures required for next year in the context of the budget but I am very conscious of the benefit of that measure.

There are various supports for principals and deputy principals, recognising the leadership roles that they play in schools. I do not underestimate their value or importance in schools.

I appreciate that. Regardless of the days, which are ongoing, and the administrative supports, some continuous training in governance would be a great help to teachers. Hopefully these release days will continue into 2022 to help with the onerous burden borne by principals.

I appreciate the Deputy's points. In the context of Covid-19, a series of webinars was put on on the specific demands placed on principals and school leaders. Webinars were also available to the school community, including parents with children returning to school. They will continue in the context of Covid-19.

Special Educational Needs

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


27. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education her views on whether special educational units in mainstream schools are not suitable for all children with additional needs; and her plans to increase special educational places and to open new special schools. [39971/20]

It is very positive that additional ASD units are being opened in schools across the State. Undoubtedly, we need many more. The demand for units is constantly growing. However, my question focuses on the fact that while those units fulfil a very important role, they are not suitable for everyone. I am concerned that we are not building enough special schools and that there may be some resistance to these schools, not from the Minister of State but from others. What are the Minister of State's plans in this area?

It is my belief that children with special educational needs should receive their education in placements which are appropriate to their needs alongside their peers wherever possible unless such an approach would be inconsistent with the best interests of the individual child or other children in the school.

This approach is consistent with the provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004.

My Department's policy is therefore to provide for the inclusive education of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The majority of children with special needs attend mainstream education with additional supports. This policy is supported by significant investment by Government which amounts to €2 billion or 20% of the total education spend. This funds the provision of additional teachers, special needs assistants and other supports required to enable children with special needs to access education.

Only where it has been assessed that the child is unable to be supported in mainstream education are special class placements or special school placements or ASD units, recommended and provided for. Therefore it is not the case that special educational placements are required to support all children with special educational needs, nor is it intended that this should be the case.

My Department will continue to provide for a continuum of provision, which includes ASD units, special class and special school places for children who have been assessed as needing such placements.

The Department's school building programme is focused on providing the additional school places to ensure that every child, including children with special needs, has a school place. This includes opening new schools and extending existing schools in areas where more school places are needed to meet the growing number of children living in these areas.

Funding is also available to schools to establish special classes within existing accommodation. Schools may apply for capital funding to re-configure existing spaces in their building to accommodate the class or to construct additional accommodation.

I agree with every word of that response but the key part that we need to drill into is the part that says where it is assessed that it is not possible or suitable for a child to be educated in such a unit and that they have a greater or different need. Generally, that relates to special schools. There is concern among those involved in special schools and in units that there is resistance to the opening of additional special schools. My experience from a number of areas, but I speak particularly of my own constituency in Cork, is that there is a need for probably at least two additional special schools in Cork city and perhaps another in the county. People involved in existing special schools have waiting lists of five years. Naturally, that has a knock-on effect. If a child who needs a place in a special school, which would be the optimum place for them, cannot obtain that place, and they are in a unit, then that place in a unit is potentially denied to a student who does not have any special educational placement. Will the Minister of State confirm that there is a need to build additional special schools?

The policy of the Department and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is to explore, find out and discover how many special needs places are needed whether it is in special classes, special schools or a child with special needs being integrated into a mainstream class. The Deputy mentioned Cork. St Mary's Special School in Rochestown accommodated an additional six or seven children this year. There are 311 special educational needs classes in total in Cork. There are about 260 ASD classes specifically, including early intervention. The Department has been in discussions with the NCSE, school management and the Cope Foundation through Scoil Aislinn about a possible expansion of places. The Department always looks at short term options and will explore Cork city centre for availability, as well as medium term options including greenfield sites for modular buildings and there are also long-term options.

I am aware of much of that. Some positive things are happening in the special education sphere in Cork albeit that it is coming from one of the lowest bases. It is in a very challenging place even compared with other parts of the country. The Minister of State mentioned greenfield sites. Some special schools are in buildings that are just not fit for purpose. They need a greenfield site just to accommodate the children in the schools now.

There has been a lot of talk about the New Brunswick model and the full integration of all children into the mainstream education system. We can talk about these things in the abstract, but in the context of the education system we have with the school buildings and resources that are in place, we are a very long way from being able to deliver that.

We need to look at the needs that currently exist. That includes additional primary and post-primary capacity, but it also has to include special schools. Whatever about specific areas, does the Minister agree that there is scope for additional special schools and that they may be needed?

At this point we cannot rule anything in or out. The National Council For Special Education, NCSE, is due to come back to me with its conclusive policy advice on an inclusion model for the Irish system. I like to talk about the Irish model as distinct from any other model. The Deputy will be aware that in this budget we secured funding for the expansion of the school inclusion model into two additional community healthcare organisation areas. That will start in September 2021. This is a multidisciplinary approach which will revolutionise the experiences of children with special needs in this country. There will be speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and behavioural crisis practitioners. All of that is already underway. It is important to bear in mind that in keeping with children's needs, special schools and special classes have different criteria to mainstream schools. This is always about the best interests of the child.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Richard O'Donoghue


28. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Education the provisions in place by her Department to police and address occurrences (details supplied); if students can be refused entry to school grounds; and if An Garda Síochána can be contacted to verify if the student in question has been overseas and take the necessary action with the child’s parents. [40260/20]

According to Government guidelines, students must not present themselves at schools if they have travelled internationally. Several reports have indicated that a small minority of parents are disregarding these guidelines. What measures has the Department of Education taken to counter these occurrences? Can students be refused entry to schools? Can An Garda be contacted to verify whether students have been overseas and can gardaí take action against parents?

From Monday, 9 November, Ireland has implemented the EU co-ordinated traffic lights approach for those travelling into Ireland. In general this requires those returning to or entering Ireland from orange or red list countries to restrict their movements for 14 days. This includes school staff, parents and students, including students coming from abroad to attend school in Ireland. Restricting movements means staying indoors in one location and avoiding contact with other people and social situations as much as possible.

Schools have a duty of care to all their students and staff members. If a school has reasonable grounds for believing that its duty of care toward its staff and students is being undermined, it can refuse access to the student or staff member concerned during this period.

The whole school community is working together to create a positive and safe environment for teaching and learning in the particular and often challenging context of Covid-19. Ensuring that all students and their parents are made aware of the public health requirements as they relate to schools is very important. My Department, working with the education partners, has developed a range of information and resources for parents and students to reinforce the importance of the safety control measures in place in schools to minimise the risk of spread of infection. These measures are observed by all students. Contacting An Garda Síochána to establish the travel arrangements of students and staff is not considered appropriate.

Can the Minister tell me who is responsible? Is it the principal, the teacher, the board of management or the chairperson? Does a teacher have to make these decisions? Ideally these children should be at school, but they are allowed to roam the streets without supervision during the day. Nobody wants that. I understand that a person must fill out a Covid-19 passenger locator form before entering the country. I am aware of a case where more than 50 passengers returned to the country from a wedding in Spain, taking a flight to the UK and a ferry from there. Members of many of these families were attending schools. How are the regulations enforced? Are schools issued instructions for such cases? Who makes the decisions? I need answers to these questions. We should issue guidelines to let schools know who should make these decisions.

I cannot speak to the specific case the Deputy has raised because I am not familiar with it. In general, schools have a duty of care to their students and staff, as I have outlined. If there is a view that this duty of care is being impeded by the return of a student who has travelled abroad and is not observing whatever restrictions have been deemed necessary at that time, the school can act. Schools have every right to refuse access to anyone who has not fulfilled his or her obligation to restrict his or her movements. That has operated well throughout the school system. There are 4,000 schools with 100,000 staff and 1 million students. This issue has not been raised with the Department on an ongoing basis. As in all contexts, schools have sufficient practicality, wisdom and know-how to deal with these incidents. Parents have also exercised very good judgment. They have been highly responsible in how they have operated within the Covid-19 guidelines pertaining to travel and to any other areas.

I acknowledge that we are talking about a minority, but this minority is holding communities and their businesses to ransom. The resilience shown by communities and businesses must be commended. I encourage the residents of towns and the surrounding areas to support the businesses which have shown courage and strength in keeping their doors open while making a loss. An Garda Síochána continues to work against this minority in our communities. A special mention goes to newly appointed Superintendent Aileen Magner and her team.

We have spoken about parents and children who have abided by all the guidelines. I am talking about the minority who have no regard for their lives or those of the people around them. I am concerned with how they are policed and how they affect the communities around them when they are not policed.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the sincerity with which he makes this point. I reiterate that if a school has any suspicion that its duty of care is impeded by the actions of anyone within the school community it has an absolute right to refuse access. I have every confidence that those measures will be implemented appropriately by schools.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


29. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the criteria which the school-specific contact tracing teams will work off, including a clear outline of who will be identified as a close contact in the school setting; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39972/20]

As the Minister knows, Sinn Féin supports keeping the virus out of schools and safely keeping them open. This necessarily means swiftly dealing with Covid-19 cases as soon as they arise within schools. It is good to know that there are school-specific contact teams, but we need more clarity on the criteria by which they will work. A lot of school staff and students have been in touch with me. They are concerned that they were not deemed close contacts though it seemed self-evident that they were. These people need peace of mind. What are the criteria for determining who is a close contact? Will these criteria be published? Are they being revised as part of the roll-out of school-specific tracing teams?

I thank the Deputy. As he is aware, the management of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in schools is led by the HSE's departments of public health. The Department of Education and Skills does not provide guidance of a clinical or medical nature. The contact tracing teams are led by public health professionals. The HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, has published a definition of a close contact in an educational setting, which was communicated to all schools and their partners in education. I will outline that definition.

In accordance with current Health Protection Surveillance Centre guidelines, a clinical public health risk assessment will be undertaken for all educational settings where a confirmed case has attended whilst infectious. A public health risk assessment defines a close contact as any person who has had face-to-face contact within less than 1 m of a confirmed case of Covid-19 for more than 15 minutes in a school day, or any person who has been in contact between 1 m and 2 m of a confirmed case of Covid-19 for more than 15 minutes in a school day. Other mitigating measures including face coverings, pods, ventilation, infection prevention and control measures or uncertain compliance with other mitigating measures are also considered. Contacts are assessed from contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 during the infectious period, 48 hours before the onset of symptoms if symptomatic or 24 hours before the test for Covid-19 was taken for those who are asymptomatic.

This definition is based on international public health guidance. It is the view of the HSE's departments of public health that the evidence available to date shows that schools are proving to be safe spaces for children and their staff.

The department of public health has also facilitated webinars for school leaders on this and other public health messages. Furthermore, dedicated school teams have been enhanced to provide specific and dedicated supports to schools where there is a confirmed case of Covid-19.

The Department will continue to work closely with all the education partners and the public health system in order that schools can continue to be supported during this very challenging time.

I am glad to see the Minister engage with this - other Ministers would have taken the attitude that it was nothing to do with them - but I would like to see her engage with it more. She will be very aware that one of the key trade unions in the sector has made this a point on which it is engaging with the Department and the HSE on potential industrial action, which is a very serious thing we all want to avoid, I am sure. The issue of criteria is one of the key points, so if we accept that that is static and is not being reconsidered, that potentially creates a problem. There are also some contradictions, or at least difficulties, that have been created on the ground - for example, where more than one child in a school or a household contracts the disease. What is the date on which a child returns if another child at home has the disease?

I should point out that I appreciate and understand absolutely why this is an area of huge concern. It is an area of huge concern not only within education facilities but in wider society as well. I acknowledge the very close working relationship and the excellent work undertaken by public health on care of our schools and incidents in our schools. We have enhanced the school teams. Obviously, they are still led by public health because it is public health's determination that qualifies everything within the school, but we have added to the supports of the public health teams for the benefit of schools. There are phone lines in place operating on a seven-day basis.

As for the issues the Deputy raised that the partners in education might have, again, there are weekly meetings with the partners in education and public health. That is a very positive move and, I think, one that has been very positively embraced by the partners in education also.

As for the updating or changing of guidelines, public health has the freedom to constantly review and update guidelines as needs be. When they do that, we act accordingly.

Weekly meetings are valuable but there needs to be progress as well. One of the issues is communication. Part of this is the communication at a local level between the HSE and the schools. There are schools the Minister will know that have expressed frustration about that. In some instances it has worked perfectly and in other instances it has not worked so well, and I am sure she will be aware of some of those instances. There is a balance to be struck here, but there is scope under regulation 11 of the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981 and Article 9 of the GDPR. In light of the overarching objective of public health, I think there is discretion for better communication between the HSE and the school. I think this would help in certain cases. However, there is also to some extent on a global level, in the overall picture, not enough communication, and the Minister has a bit more to contribute here. It was welcome to see her on the After School Hub, but I wrote to her a few months ago about some of the weekly briefings. We need more communication from the centre on the overall picture because when that is not there, there is a vacuum, and in that vacuum there exists speculation. I am sure the Minister will be aware of much of this. We need to nip this in the bud.

As I said, and I will reiterate it, there has been huge engagement between public health and schools. The school teams process is working particularly well and to general acceptance all round, including partners in education and schools on the ground. The school teams are doing a very good job, and that has improved and added to communication levels between schools and public health. Equally, the provision of webinars for school leaders and information being made available have also been very positively embraced. Officials from my Department meet with the partners in education and public health on an ongoing basis to address any individual and general queries they might have.