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 Header Item Covid-19 (Education): Statements (Continued)
 Header Item Ábhair Shaincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Matters
 Header Item Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle] The Minister should let people plan. With all of the uncertainty around this pandemic, new strains, rates of vaccinations, and so on, the least service providers and employers can do is to carry out some forward planning. Realistically, we should probably be looking at online learning and an increased level of working from home for the rest of this year. The Government should let people organise for this in order that it can be done properly.

Deputy Marian Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin Zoom on Marian Harkin I am delighted that the Minister expects students with special needs to return to school on a staggered basis next week. It is the best news I have heard all week. Like many others, I have received many emails from parents of children with special needs who are beyond devastated as they see their children regress before their eyes. Equally, I have received many emails from teachers who are frightened and petrified by the prospect of returning to the classroom.

While I am delighted about what is happening, what has changed? How is next week or today different from last Monday? Is the Minister looking at offering vaccination to teachers who are prepared to go back into classrooms at the height of the third wave? I have written to the Minister for Health on this same question.

Time and time again, we have been told that schools are safe. Would it perhaps to be more accurate to say that schools are safer than other environments? Given that mobility is part and parcel of attending school, one cannot be separated from the other. That has to be factored into any statements we make about schooling. Have any efforts been made to factor in the possibility that many young people may be asymptomatic though infected and, therefore, do not appear in school statistics? It is when students go home, where they spend 75% of their time, that they have a greater chance of spreading the virus. Has that been studied?

With regard to the leaving certificate examination itself, as a former maths teacher, I understand the importance of the objectivity of the examination. I am, therefore, instinctively hesitant with regard to predicted grades. Covid has, however, upended everything. How can students prepare adequately without sitting mock examinations? Some have inadequate broadband. What about students with difficult home situations? Current leaving certificate students have also already lost a lot of time.

Will the Minister at least look at some kind of hybrid model in which students might receive predicted grades for oral and practical examinations and project work? Should the Minister not, at the very least, tell schools to prepare for predicted grades? Above all else, we need a Department policy with regard to consistency in predicted grades. This could include, for example, metrics such as the number of assignments carried out, the level of online participation and the results of classroom tests in addition to collaboration with subject teachers and national guidelines. I fully understand that this is not the Minister's plan A, but Covid has taught us that we always need a plan B.

Deputy Norma Foley: Information on Norma Foley Zoom on Norma Foley Deputy Pringle mentioned public health advice and the decision to stand down our schools. I want to make it very clear that we have followed public health advice at every point. The public health advice suggested that there was a need to reduce mobility. We respected that and acted accordingly. I am very disappointed that the Deputy does not agree that it is important to give priority to children with additional needs in those circumstances. They deserve that priority. I thought that then and I think it now.

I thank Deputy Harkin for her comments. It is very positive that we are working towards the resumption of education for children with additional needs on 21 January. There are still logistics to be worked out and so on but our partners in education have confirmed that they share our objective for these children to return to education on 21 January. In terms of-----

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly The Minister will have to write to the Deputy; we have run out of time again. I thank her for her co-operation. I apologise for interrupting but I have to abide by the time limits.

Ábhair Shaincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Matters

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly I wish to advise the House of the following matters in respect of which notice has been given under Standing Order 37 and the name of the Member in each case: (1) Deputy Bernard J. Durkan - to discuss providing schoolchildren access to Maynooth Boys' National School via the adjoining Maynooth Post Primary School for safety reasons; (2) Deputy Denis Naughten - to discuss emergency action to address flooding at Lough Funshinagh, County Roscommon, which is threatening homes and farm buildings; (3) Deputy Neale Richmond - to discuss the relocation of Leave.EU to Waterford from the UK and the regulation of its activities as per Irish electoral law; (4) Deputy Fergus O'Dowd - to discuss plans to develop Drogheda and its surrounding areas in line with Project Ireland 2040; (5) Deputy Neasa Hourigan - to discuss the provision of neonatal intensive care unit services and best practices at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin; (6) Deputies Thomas Pringle and Catherine Connolly - to discuss the fallout for the Irish fishing industry in the context of the Brexit agreement with the UK; (7) Deputies Paul Murphy, Richard Boyd Barrett, Gino Kenny and Bríd Smith - to discuss the killing of George Nkencho on 30 December 2020; (8) Deputy Mick Barry - to discuss developments in the Debenhams industrial dispute which have seen the rejection of the latest proposal; (9) Deputy Jackie Cahill - to discuss the financial implications on the national hunt industry as a result of the recent decision to cancel all point-to-point races; and (10) Deputy Kieran O'Donnell - to discuss an update on the roll-out of the national broadband plan.

The matters raised by Deputies Naughten, O'Donnell, Hourigan and Richmond have been selected for discussion.

Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris With the agreement of the House, I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the impact of Covid-19 on the further and higher education sector. I was a little disappointed that, for the first time in my political career, some Members of the Dáil actually voted not to have me here today for questions and answers. I find that a little bit regrettable, as almost half a million people in this country are in further or higher education. Many of these are first-time entrants to third level and, as a result of this awful virus, some have never had an opportunity to set foot on their campuses or to attend a lecture in person. The airwaves are full of discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on our schoolchildren. It is right and proper that this issue is being discussed but we also need to discuss and consider the impact this pandemic is having on young people more broadly, including young people in third level education.

I want to talk about that this afternoon because Covid-19 has robbed many of our young people of important milestones, which they understandably thought they could expect. It has robbed them of the opportunity to experience a life beyond secondary school. These first-year students last set foot in a school last March and now find themselves experiencing college life in a box room or at the corner of a kitchen table, looking at a laptop or a Zoom camera. They may have missed out on the opportunity to leave their home towns, to become independent, to meet new people or to be creative. Their college experience has been greatly curtailed. We know this is absolutely the right thing to do from the perspective of public health. It is a matter of saving lives and keeping people safe. We do, however, need to consider how best to support these young people and we must move mountains to help them. My message to young people and first-year students today, which I hope all will echo loudly and clearly, is that this will not be their college life forever. It is a difficult moment in time but it will pass.

Third level is, of course, not just about young people. It is also about mature students, that is, people who had the guts and the courage to go back to college and learning, to avail of lifelong learning, to start a new career, to reskill or to upskill. It is about the student from the Traveller community who may be the first in his or her family to attend a third level course and who now wants to find a quiet space to do his or her work. It is about young people, like those I met yesterday, who left school early for any of a variety of reasons - because school sometimes does not work out for people - and who are now back in Youthreach, trying to get their lives back on track and to fulfil their ambitions. We have to discuss the impact this is having on them and we have to ensure that when we open our doors - which we all hope will be soon - they will be in a position to continue their journey in education.

This country is talking an awful lot about economic recovery, which is really important but we are not talking nearly enough about how we are going to repair society and societal well-being after this period. From the engagements I have had, I can tell the House that people are finding this time really tough. People are fragile and consequently, when we talk about recovery, can we talk about social recovery, as well as about economic recovery?

There is absolutely no doubt that Covid-19 has resulted in significant disruption for students and learners, as well as staff. I acknowledge the enormous efforts that have gone into ensuring that continuity has, for the most part, been maintained throughout the pandemic. Despite learning having to happen in a new and different format, it has continued. I thank the unions and all of our stakeholders who have stepped up to the plate and worked very hard. In the early phase, when on-site activities were suddenly suspended, there was a very rapid shift to emergency remote learning.

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