I propose to take Questions Nos. 439 and 471 together.
The nature of distance learning, which was necessitated during the unprecedented closure of schools earlier this year, required educators to take on a range of approaches to support their pupils continuity of learning during that period. Assisted by Department funded resources and supports, schools and teachers demonstrated great innovation in adapting to the unprecedented situation including the use of digital technologies and online learning platforms for teaching and learning.
My Department provided schools with a series of “Continuity of Schooling Guidance” documents to help education professionals and parents to support children learning in a remote environment. They included links to a range of materials developed by the Digital Technologies team of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (a Department support service for teachers) such as learning platforms and online tools which can be used to support remote/distance teaching and learning. Those resources continue to be available to schools. There is also ongoing consultation with the management bodies and unions from both sectors on all matters relating to the safe return to school in the context of the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic, which is an evolving situation. All guidance documents are under review and will be updated to take account of the current situation and to support schools further in maintaining continuity of schooling for all learners including those at very high risk and unable to return to school at this time.
As a contingency for any future school closures, whether localised or at a bigger scale, and to ensure compliance with any public health restrictions, it is essential however that all schools are prepared and have in place appropriate measures to continue to deliver teaching and learning whether for closure of a class group or the school. In this regard, my Department is in the process of drafting a circular that will issue to schools to help in their preparation for such an event. The circular will provide guidance and support to schools, building on the work already done by schools, to put in place appropriate arrangements to facilitate communication with and between staff, between staff and learners and to facilitate development of online approaches to remote and blended learning in the event that such is required. My Department will engage with education stakeholders, including unions and management bodies, to inform the final drafting of the circular.
A commitment of €210m was provided under the Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020 for improved ICT infrastructure, of which €160m has issued to schools to date, including €50m which issued earlier this year. In the context of the current public health crisis schools can use this funding to address ICT needs including devices, software and other ICT solutions to support the provision of remote learning. This may include the purchase of ICT devices that can be shared with learners who do not have access to devices and for the purchase of essential learning platforms. The remaining €50m under this provision will issue to schools during the current school year (2020-2021) subject to the availability of exchequer funding. Separately, and through the Schools Broadband Access Programme, my Department provides for improved ICT infrastructure for the supply of internet connectivity for all recognised primary and post primary schools and some 98% of schools avail of this service. All post-primary schools and some special schools are now included in the High Speed Broadband programme. Schools in this programme are monitored and selected for upgrade where usage signals this requirement. The primary broadband scheme is based on locally available infrastructure accessed by the providers of the service to my Department. My Department continues to fund the upgrade of services as improved infrastructure becomes available subject to contractual and other budgetary constraints.
The Department of Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport is responsible for the enhanced provision of broadband through the National Broadband and State Intervention Plan. By the end of this year some 70 primary schools will be connected to high speed broadband through the National Broadband Plan first phase of delivery through Broadband Connection Points (BCP) programme. My Department continues to liaise with that Department to seek to improve broadband connectivity for primary schools and to raise issues of barriers to connectivity impacting access to remote learning.