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Parents left stressed after schools report children to Tusla for missing days due to Covid

The number of children included in these absence reports increased during the pandemic due to Covid-19 illness and close contact rules.

PARENTS HAVE CRITICISED the communication around the mandatory reporting of children to Tusla for missing more than 20 days of school, saying that it is causing stress and confusion in cases where children missed school due to Covid or close contact rules.

Schools are legally required to submit a report to Tusla, the child and family agency, twice a year with a list of pupils who have had 20 or more absences in a school year. This applies to children aged 6 to 16. 

Schools inform parents that their child has been included in the report, sometimes with a letter or an automated message through an app the school is using.

One parent who spoke to The Journal received a brief message through the Aladdin app – administration software used by many primary schools in Ireland – before one of her children had even reached 20 absences, warning her that a report would be made if he reached the cut-off.

“[Child's name] has been absent from school for 15 days. We are required to report at 20 days absent,” the message read in full.

She did not receive any further information from the school about who this would be reported to, about the school’s legal requirement or what reporting the absences would mean for her or her child. Her children’s absences were “100% Covid-related”, she said and for the first number of days off, before they became ill, they were still doing schoolwork from home.

The Department of Education and Tusla have said the Education Support Service (TESS) is “very aware” that some students will be absent for legitimate Covid-19-related health reasons and TESS will act accordingly. However this context is missing from notifications to parents, particularly those that are automatically generated by administrative apps. 

“It’s the lack of clarity around what exactly this report may entail that’s annoying,” the parent who spoke to The Journal said. She said several friends who have children – some in other schools – had received similarly brief messages telling them their children had passed the 20-day mark and had been included in a report to Tusla.

“All of their children had Covid and were close contacts also,” she said. “My main concern is the lack of clarification as to who exactly this report is being made to and what is then being done with that information. One of my friends was very distressed as her child is immuno-compromised and had missed well over the 20 days.”

A number of other parents have shared their experiences with receiving these notifications in recent days. One women said:

“We received said notification, it’s completely unnecessary given the year we’ve all had. I reiterated that my son had Covid once and was a close contact twice before then so we were compliant [with Covid rules], but it still had to be reported on.”

Another said:

I’m fuming over this. We got a generic email from my daughter’s school this week informing us that we’ve been reported to Tusla over my daughter’s attendance. They told us to keep them home.

“I was worried about this, but the school said not to worry, most kids in the country are over 20 days this year,” another parent commented. “Mine must be over 40 at this stage. But it will cause stress. Even though I know they can’t do much, I still worry.”

‘The communications could be much clearer’

Trina Golden, principal at Owenabue Educate Together National School (ETNS) in Cork, told The Journal said this reporting mechanism has “caused confusion for years”.

“I don’t think the confusion is a new thing, there are just more people experiencing it now,” she said. “The letter people get does say that it’s being reported to Tusla, so I think some people just panic when they hear that. The communications side of things could be much, much clearer.

“There was a leaflet a number of years ago explaining the system, but I haven’t seen them in a few years and we could probably do with it being broadly communicated again because you have 4,000 schools reinventing the wheel trying to explain every year as they get new parents – something will fall through the cracks.”

She pointed out that some parents may have literacy issues or there may be a language barrier and that a message without more context could cause anxiety.

“Sometimes it can be taken for granted that parents will understand things and that’s not always the case,” she said. “You could also have a parent who had a poor experience in school themselves, or negative experiences with Tusla and when they get the message it could be very triggering for them.”

Golden said that it is “very rare” that Tusla would follow up on these reports, unless the school has expressed a particular concern about a child through other reporting mechanisms.

In these twice-yearly reports, schools are required to include detail on whether or not the child’s absences were explained or unexplained and all Covid-related absences, including due to close contact rules, are to be labelled as ‘explained’.

For parents whose child’s absences are listed as ‘explained’,  there is nothing to worry about, she said, but this is not always made clear to parents. 

Golden said she believes communication material, such as a leaflet for parents, directly from Tusla or the Department of Education explaining how attendance works and why the reporting list is in place would be valuable.

“I think that would be more powerful that the school principal saying ‘don’t worry about it’,” she said. “But what I would say is that it isn’t something to be worrying about, the vast majority of parents don’t need to do any sort of panicking when they get a notification.”

Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the issue is further evidence of a “culture problem” in the Department of Education.

“Lots of parents never got these notifications before, they’re not used to the system,” he said. “There would of course be parents who are used to it because they have a child with a serious illness or there’s some other reason they’re in regular contact with the National Educational Welfare Board, but for many it’s new to them.

“This is classic of the Department of Education, they don’t seem to look at anything from the parent or student point of view, how it will affect them.”

He said the reporting obligation was put in place “in an ordinary atmosphere of general health, not in a pandemic” and measures were not put in place to adequately explain the system to parents. 

Ó Ríordáin said schools are still under pressure with Covid absences among staff and he said the department is not providing adequate support to ease the administrative  burden.

“Even Monday, the department gave out the staff schedule for 2022/2023 on the first day of the Easter holidays,” he said.

“School principals have been waiting for that, in previous years it was out in February. That allows principals to plan for the next year. After just battling their way through another difficult term with Covid still having a major impact on school life, it lands on the first day of their time off. 

“At third level they’re still waiting for a date for the Leaving Certificate results, there’s still not clarity on that, so these kinds of things are all adding up.”

‘Resources will not be diverted’

In response to a query from The Journal, Tusla said its Education Support Service (TESS) receives notifications of all absences from schools under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. 

“Absences are reported to TESS as explained and unexplained, and together they make up the cumulative number of days marked absent,” it said. “This has remained the reporting requirement throughout the Covid 19 pandemic.”

There is a separate process of referrals on the basis of concern about a child’s absences, Tusla said, and these referrals are screened and prioritised for intervention by an educational welfare officer.

Generally there will be no further intervention after a child is included in the 20-day absence report unless another process, such as this referral system, has also been used to express concern about the child or Tusla has already had some involvement with the child. 

Tusla said resources will not be diverted from referrals to the Educational Welfare Service (EWS) due to absence reporting as a result of Covid.

The Department of Education said it has provided guidance to schools in relation to the recording and reporting of Covid-19 related absences. Guidance documents on the management of absences were issued to both primary and secondary schools in 2020, when schools re-opened after the first Covid lockdown.

“Covid-19 related absences arising from pupils/students who have been requested to self-isolate by a medical professional or for students who feel unwell with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 must be recorded in accordance with the school’s normal procedures for the notification and recording of absences,” a department spokesperson said.

“However these Covid-19 related absences should be noted by the school as explained absences.

“Notwithstanding the current Covid-19 related environment that schools are now operating in, the statutory requirements for reporting pupil absences will continue as normal.”

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