I propose to take Questions Nos. 289 and 290 together.
Since last March, my Department has put in place a number of measures to support vulnerable learners and those at risk of educational disadvantage during possible partial or full school closures due to Covid-19.
As a contingency measure for the possibility of partial or full school closures, my Department provided to schools in October a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners, to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all learners in a Covid-19 context. These documents have been complemented by Circular 0074/2020 which required all schools to put in place appropriate contingency measures to ensure that they are prepared to continue to support teaching and learning in the event of a partial or full closure of schools arising from Public Health advice. My Department has also provided updated specific guidance to advise on how schools and teachers can support continuity in the learning of vulnerable students and those at risk if educational disadvantage during school closures due to Covid-19.
Schools are asked to be conscious of students who may not have access to online facilities or technology and to adapt approaches to ensure that these pupils’ ability to participate in learning is not compromised. Many schools have already introduced a range of strategies and measures to ensure that the needs of these pupils are catered for, including pupils who have limited access to technology or whose parents are not in a position to support their learning. The guidance sets out approaches that schools can take and my Department will be asking schools to ensure that there is a specific focus on ensure that these pupils are supported.
My Department has provided significant additional resources to schools to help support the provision of ICT equipment and to prioritise the needs of students that do not otherwise have access to ICT. My Department issued €50m in April 2020 in Digital Strategy ICT grant funding in respect of the 2019-2020 school year, including €10m brought forward. A further €50m issued in December 2020 in respect of the 2020-2021 school year. Schools were advised to use this funding to support the continuity of teaching and learning should a period of partial or full school closure owing to Covid-19 restrictions be required.
Tusla Education Support Services will engage with principals to promote connectedness to schools for children who are at risk of educational disadvantage and there will be direct liaison by education welfare officers to Direct Provision accommodation centres, refuges for families experiencing domestic violence and homeless hubs to ensure students are linked with their schools.
My Department spends in the region of €125 million annually to provide a suite of supports to schools in the DEIS programme, of which €16.2 million was allocated to schools in the form of a DEIS grant for the 2020/21 school year.
Schools in the DEIS programme are asked to use all available supports, both in-school and community-based, to promote a positive solution-oriented approach that will support all pupils to achieve, to learn and to progress in their education and to help minimize any further educational inequality among those at risk of educational disadvantage.