How long could school closures last?
The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 is meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discuss potential closures of up to three weeks.
However, closures could well last longer if community transmission of the virus does not fall significantly. The Taoiseach said on Tuesday that he wants to see the trajectory of the virus falling before they reopen. In much of Britain, schools are set to close until at least mid-February, while in the North they will remain closed for an unspecified period. A review date of school closures in the Republic is set for January 30th.
Schools had been due to reopen on January 6th, but are technically on extended leave until January 11th. Schools will begin remote tuition from then onwards, either in the form of live-streamed classes or work which is assigned to pupils using virtual learning platforms.
Are schools in a better place to provide remote tuition?
When schools closed last March many scrambled to set up an emergency response. This time around schools are, broadly, better prepared to provide online learning. Teachers are more familiar with remote tuition and virtual learning platforms.
There is, however, a digital divide between schools. Some are much better placed to live-stream classes; others assign work on a daily or weekly basis for pupils to do in their own time. However, many pupils still don’t have access to devices, reliable broadband or quiet study spaces.
What will happen to special schools?
It is widely acknowledged that children with special needs lost out most during the previous school closures. Many struggled to engage online and some regressed, losing key skills they had built up over months or even years. On this occasion there is a determination to among Government Ministers to ensure special schools and special classes remain open. While there are health risks, sources say the lower student numbers – with a maximum of six students to a class – make it more viable.
It is likely the sector will close in line with the school system as happened during the previous closures. There may be some limited access to childcare for parents who are frontline workers.
What will happen with the Leaving Cert?
The Taoiseach said on Tuesday that it was the Government’s firm intention to press ahead with the Leaving Cert in June that is as close to the traditional exam as possible.
However, the longer schools remain closed, the more likely it is that calculated grades will be back on the agenda.
In the UK, for example, GCSE and A levels will not go ahead as normal and “alternative arrangements” will be put in place.
In the Republic, many schools will struggle to hold mock exams and a digital divide means that some students will lose out more than others.
Many Leaving Cert students feel anxious about the status of the exams and worry that they have already lost out on months of in-school teaching.
In the meantime, a decision will be needed soon on whether the Leaving Cert oral and practical exams will go ahead or be cancelled.
What is likely to happen with third level?
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris had signalled that he wanted firs- year students to be able to have some limited on-campus experiences in the new year. This now looks highly unlikely. As a result, the current system on mostly online lectures – with some limited in-person teaching for practicals – will continue.