We can't let educational equality be a casualty of the coronavirus

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Covid-19 is exposing the cracks in our schools system and favouring those who have the means to pay, writes Ita O’Kelly

Responsibility for the return of schools rests with the minister in the Department of Education and Skills (DES).

Norma Foley is both policy and decision-maker in chief. And she has control of the purse strings.

While a stimulus plan for the economy is in the pipeline and much time and effort has gone into safely reopening the hospitality industry, as of now there is no signed-off plan for the return of almost one million children to their schools.

Until a concrete plan is put in place, parents cannot plan their own return to work and schools cannot prepare a safe environment for reopening.

To date, not a single euro has been paid to schools to source or purchase PPE. No monies have yet been agreed to fund additional cleaning or extra staffing, both of which are essential.

Schools cannot pull a safe environment out of a hat in late August. Many do not even have hot running water, never mind sensor-operated sanitisers.

The notion that a model of so-called ”blended learning” was successfully established during lockdown is based on conjecture not fact.

It was left to individual schools to devise a learning plan during school closure. Some did this. Others did precious little. The result was an incredibly uneven playing field. No audit of this online learning in schools was conducted by the DES.

A survey of 700 second-level teachers conducted by Trinity College Dublin, concluded that relatively little live teaching took place during lockdown.

The report – Teaching and Learning During School Closures – stated that fee-paying schools were more likely to use real-time teaching and recorded classes.

Many of the rest had email contact once or twice a week. This does not constitute online teaching. It was an emergency stop-gap measure. Nothing more.

There are currently 51 fee-paying post-primary schools here and 672 non-fee paying ones, of which 198 are disadvantaged or DEIS schools.

”Blended learning” amounts to a convenient euphemism for part-time schooling.

The education system cannot now rely on a learning model that is unproven and notional in many instances.

All the indicators are that social distancing of one metre, although flexible, may be required in some schools. This is where the greatest loss of learning is likely to be.

A lack of investment in education means that many schools have a non-existent IT infrastructure. It is not good enough that some schools are fully digitised while others don’t even have wi-fi.

The second-level sector is not currently equipped to deliver live teaching using technology. In addition, some teachers are self-proclaimed Luddites, even though they are tasked with teaching digital natives. Others object to the use of Zoom, citing privacy issues.

That this ”blended learning” model is a feasible option going forward, is based on the false premise that all students have tech devices and broadband at home. They do not.

There is a presumption that all parents can work from home. This is not the case. Lone parents will be forced to give up work altogether.

In all of this there is an assumption that all teachers have the skills and the technology to make it happen. And that all parents have the knowledge and education themselves to teach their offspring. They don’t.

Parents cannot be expected to leave young teenagers to their own devices at home, while they return to the workplace.

If part-time education prevails, cancellation of both the Junior and Leaving Certificate in 2021 is inevitable.

Speedy and creative solutions must come from the department and the newly appointed education minister.

Resources must be made immediately available to schools, as they were with the health service, to ensure that they are safe and fit for purpose.

Large numbers of children cannot be cheated out of their education by passing the buck to individual schools to rustle up whatever they can.

Such a decision would result in added disadvantage for many.

There must be close oversight by the Department of Education and Skills to ensure that all appropriate health and safety measures are put in place across all schools, to an even and equal standard.

It would be unconscionable if standards were to vary across schools. Every child’s health and safety matters equally.

In 1966 the then education minister Donogh O’Malley announced the introduction of free secondary education for all. It was a far-sighted and life-changing decision for thousands of Irish children.

It would be a truly shocking indictment of government policy if the legacy of Covid-19 for young people is the formalisation of an education system that favours those who have the means to pay.

Equality of opportunity in education must not be allowed to become a casualty of Covid-19.

Source: Irish News