Minister for Education Norma Foley TD and Minister of State Josepha Madigan TD have welcomed the Government decision for the next phases of return to in-school provision for students at both primary and post-primary level.
Building on the return to school in recent weeks of children in special schools and in special classes at primary and post-primary level, the Government has decided on a phased return of students to in-school education.
These further phases have been developed in close collaboration with education stakeholders and follow ongoing engagement with the Department of Health and Public Health, HSE.
The Department of Health and the HSE have reaffirmed that schools in themselves are low risk environments and that a gradual phased reopening can occur at this time. Public health has reviewed the measures put in place to ensure safe operation of schools and is satisfied that these infection prevention and control measures, if rigorously adhered to, will keep the school community safe during this period. They emphasise that all measures must be followed carefully by students, staff and parents.
There will be a period of time between each phase to assess the impact of reopening on aspects of community transmission.
On Monday 1 March the first four class groups at primary level – junior and senior infants, first and second class – and final year Leaving Certificate students will return to in-school provision. This phase will also see a return to full attendance for children in special schools, as well as children in early start pre-school classes and early intervention special classes for children with autism or hearing impairment.
Monday 15 March is the target date for the return to in-school provision of the rest of primary school children – third to sixth class, and fifth year Leaving Certificate students. This date will be reviewed during the period following 1 March.
Monday 12 April, following the Easter break is the target date for the return to in-school education of the rest of post-primary students – first to fourth year students.
Remote teaching and learning provision for students in each category will cease once in-school provision commences for each group of students.
Minister Foley said: “I am pleased that today, following intensive engagement with the education partners we can outline the target dates for the return of all students to in-school learning.
“We are all aware of the hugely adverse consequences at individual, family and societal level of school closures.
"The closure of schools impacts on wellbeing, learning, and on children’s social and emotional development. The safe return and sustained safe re-opening of our schools is a key priority for Government.
“It is vital that we continue to make progress in controlling the spread of Covid-19 so that our students can return to and continue attending school.
“I acknowledge that a phased re-opening is challenging for many people, with children of different age groups in the same families returning at different times. The purpose of managing 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 please 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.
“Please continue to abide by all social distancing regulations and stay 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.”
Provision for students will special educational needs remains a priority and it is acknowledged that work remains to ensure that all students with special educational needs in mainstream school can return to the classroom.
Primary schools will be asked to prioritise deployment of their special education teacher resources to facilitate the engagement of those pupils with SEN who are in third-sixth classes during the initial two-week period from March 1 to 15, when it is intended all primary school students will return.
The supplementary programme currently in place for students with additional needs will be extended by a further two weeks (ten hours of provision) for children in third-sixth class of primary school and for post-primary students not returning in this phase commencing on 1 March.
An enhanced programme of summer provision for children with additional needs and those who are experiencing educational disadvantage, similar to what was provided in summer 2020 is being developed and the details of how it will operate will be worked through with the education partners in the coming months.
Minister Madigan said: “I welcome the decision to move from 50% capacity in special schools to 100%. This is an important development for students in these schools who are among those with the greatest level of need and will ensure they can return to full routine and structure.
“It has always been my view, as well as that of Minister Foley and the Department, that special education must be a priority as part of school reopening. This remains our view. We have seen the impact that long periods of school closure have had on students who cannot engage in remote learning. These students need to return to in-person education as soon as possible. To date, we have succeeded in re-opening our special schools and special classes across the country and I am delighted that these students can return to school to be amongst their peers, SNAs, and teachers. The progress to date underscores our commitment in this area. The journey is not finished however.
“This announcement will be a relief to many families, including the youngest of those with special educational needs who will be returning to school. There remains work to be done to ensure that all students with additional needs in mainstream education can return to the classroom. I have heard the concerns of these young people and their families. As ever, we are committed to a full reopening as quickly as possible in accordance with health advice, to assuaging all concerns, to engaging widely with different stakeholders, and to achieving a resolution for all. In the interim, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that every support is provided to students, including by providing an enhanced summer programme for 2021. At the end of the day, no interim solution is as effective as in-school, in-person education for all. This is our guiding principle.”
Schools have been provided with a framework for the return to in-person learning, outlining the public health supports and risk mitigation measures in the classroom and in schools. This includes an interim model during partial reopening including flexible provisions for management, staff and children. The flexible framework underpins the return during these next phases.
The Department of Education continues to engage with Public Health and the Department of Health, who are fully committed to supporting schools. Enhanced schools teams that have been put in place to support schools since October will be available to support schools during the phased return and beyond.
The public health approach to managing Covid-19 in schools will continue as before. All provision within schools will continue according to public health advice developed for educational settings and the Department will continue to fund and support as necessary all infection prevention and control measures in schools to ensure the safety of the school community.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.