I am happy to be here to continue the discussions which some of the Deputies in the Chamber today and I had at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science yesterday. I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan.
The House will be aware of the significant announcements and developments in recent weeks about students returning to in-person learning and the arrangements for the State examinations in 2021. When I was last in this House, we were working intensively with education partners on both of these important objectives. I am happy that this work has ensured that we can move forward in the interests of students and school communities.
Earlier this week, we saw the return of approximately 320,000 students to their classrooms. Some 60,000 are the leaving certificate class of 2021 and approximately 260,000 are in the first four years of primary school. This was a positive day for many students, their families and school staff, and one which has been much anticipated.
Monday also saw special schools return to full in-class provision having operated on the basis of 50% attendance since 11 February. Special classes at primary and post-primary level have been operating at full capacity since 22 February. In total, this has seen the return of more than 18,000 children with special educational needs to the classroom.
In line with the published phases of the return to in-class, in-person teaching over the next weeks, we hope to see even more students return to schools, including 260,000 primary school students in the more senior classes returning on 15 March together with fifth year students at post-primary level. Subject to continued progress in maintaining reduced community transmission levels, the remaining post-primary students return on 12 April following the traditional Easter break.
The phased approach which has been building on the earlier phases when special schools and special classes reopened has been possible with the progress made across communities in bringing the community transmission levels of Covid-19 down. Like many Deputies, I was encouraged to see the Covid statistics being reported last night by the Department of Health, showing real and strong progress in the right direction. We need to maintain our efforts to contain the virus and I welcome the deputy chief medical officer's advice to school communities and more generally that we must stay vigilant so that we can get our students back to full in-school provision. Schools are planning for the coming phases and looking forward to welcoming all of their students back to their classrooms. We all have a duty and burden of responsibility to ensure that that will happen.
I acknowledge that a phased reopening is challenging for many people, with children of different age groups in the same families returning at different times. The purpose of this cautious phased return is to continue to limit the mobility of the population and curb the spread of the virus. I ask all parents to review the symptoms of Covid-19 to ensure that children with symptoms do not attend school and that all children know and understand the procedures in place in school. This has been supported by a recent public health campaign. Please continue to abide by all social distancing regulations and stay at home apart from essential journeys. Please help schools by not congregating at the school gates. We all understand how essential school reopening is and we need to give it the best possible chance to get all students back as quickly as possible.
We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for children and adults alike and for this reason, the National Education Psychological Service, NEPS, has developed well-being webinars and toolkits for school staff. These contain information, guidance, tips and advice for schools on how to best support the well-being of all children and young people, including those with special educational needs, following this current period of Covid-19 school closures. NEPS has also produced and recently revised a targeted well-being resource, Supporting the Wellbeing of Students with Special Educational Needs Returning to School. NEPS psychologists have developed advice and guidance documents for parents and students to support the return to school, including advice on transition, coping and relaxation strategies, and managing stress and anxiety. Other resources for schools include guidance and advice for teachers to support students in the areas of behavioural regulation, managing stress and anxiety, as well as supporting teacher well-being and self-care. At local level, NEPS psychologists will continue to work with their assigned schools to support them to meet the needs of children and young people with a particular focus on those with the highest level of need as they settle back after this period of school closure.
Before turning to the leaving certificate, I will address some important points about the reopening of our schools to avoid any confusion. The Department of Education has confirmed with public health services that the enhanced, augmented public health schools teams will be available to fully support schools that are opening in this interim phase. Full contact tracing and bulk fast-track testing in the school setting will resume immediately for schools as they reopen. Principals in a school where there has been a positive Covid-19 case will continue to have access to a dedicated phone line seven days a week. Close contact testing has resumed in the community. Close contacts will now be tested at day zero and again at day ten. If the second test results in no detection of the virus, then staff or students may return to school. Detailed data about transmission of Covid-19 within school settings will continue to be published and made available to my Department and stakeholders during this phase.
The current public health advice is that serial antigen or PCR testing is not currently recommended as a public health measure to keep schools safe. This position is being kept under review by the HSE and an expert group is in place examining the use of antigen tests in schools and other workplace settings. I will continue to be guided by the advice of the public health authorities about all risk mitigation measures being implemented in the education sector.
Revised Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidelines for SNAs published on 7 January 2021 recommend surgical grade masks for all SNAs. Schools must provide medical grade masks to all SNAs and teachers in special schools and special classes and those staff who, by necessity, need to be in close and continued proximity with pupils with intimate care needs, including school bus escorts.
Schools may access the current PPE framework to procure the necessary PPE supplies. Funding is in place to support implementation of all infection prevention and control, IPC, measures, including all required PPE. There has been no reduction in that funding.
A number of temporary measures have been implemented to support the phased reopening of schools, including putting in place temporary flexible accommodations for high-risk staff to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care. Pregnant teachers and SNAs were facilitated to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff is developed by occupational and public health doctors.
This week has also seen the return of the leaving certificate year students to their classrooms. They return with the clarity and choice the recent Government decision on the approach to be taken to their leaving certificate has provided. The work undertaken by the members of the advisory group on the State examinations in the lead-up to the Government decision was very beneficial in ensuring all voices could be heard and could have an input into the deliberations. Leaving certificate 2021 students are being offered a choice. They can sit the leaving certificate examination, receive grades accredited by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to be known as SEC accredited grades, or both. Students can make this choice subject by subject. The candidate self-service portal will open next Wednesday, 10 March at 12 noon and will remain open until Tuesday 16 March at 6 p.m. Students will be asked to register on the candidate self-service portal and create their own account, confirm their subject entries and level and indicate whether they are taking the examination, opting for accredited grades, or both.
Providing for both accredited grades and conventional examinations is essential to ensuring a fair system, having regard to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and the loss of learning that has occurred for this group of students. The primary concern is to give students a choice and ensure they have a way to progress to further or higher education or on to work, recognising the particular circumstances of this year’s leaving certificate students. The work in ensuring students can choose to sit an examination or avail of an accredited grade continues intensively within my Department and the SEC and will involve continued engagement with the education partners.
The House will be aware that A Guide to State Examinations and Accredited Grades for Leaving Certificate 2021 was issued by my Department last week. It provides detailed information for students, their families and schools as to how the examination and accredited grades strands will progress. Several members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science referenced specific elements of the guide at yesterday's meeting. Significant further information and guidance will be issued to students and schools over the coming weeks.
There are differences to the arrangements in 2021 when compared with last year. First, a full suite of examinations operated by the SEC will be run, starting with the oral and practical components in the coming weeks, subject to prevailing public health advice. The examinations will take place in line with their traditional June timetable and that timetable has been published. The accredited grades system this year will ultimately be completed by the SEC, with my Department carrying out the preliminary stages of the work pending necessary legislative amendments. I intend to bring proposals for relevant legislative amendments to Cabinet shortly and to seek to have the relevant provisions drafted as a priority. Those provisions relate primarily to providing the necessary legal powers to the SEC, providing indemnity to teachers and schools and prohibiting the canvassing of teachers. I will be seeking the assistance of this House, the Seanad and the aforementioned Oireachtas committee in ensuring the relevant Bill can progress through the required legislative stages as expeditiously as possible.
Across both Houses, I am sure we are united in our desire to see our leaving certificate class of 2021 progress to the next stages of their lives in as normal a fashion as possible, acknowledging the challenges they and the education system as a whole have faced and continue to face in the midst of a pandemic. I acknowledge the work undertaken across schools communities in recent weeks, particularly in the lead-up to yesterday, to ensure so many students are now back in their classrooms with their teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and support staff. I am looking forward to seeing all students back in their classrooms over the coming weeks. I now invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to address the House.