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Saturday 27 February 2021

'I hate to have to say it but we are not expendable': Leaving Cert students dismayed at three-days-a-week plan

Students facing a return to school are worried about their health and the health of their loved ones with Covid-19 rampant in the community.

File photo. Leaving Cert exams in 2015.
File photo. Leaving Cert exams in 2015.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

LEAVING CERT STUDENTS have responded with anger and dismay at the government’s plans for them to return to school for three days a week while all other pupils stay at home. 

Yesterday, the government announced the closure of all schools until the end of January at the earliest, with exceptions for special education and specialised settings along with Leaving Cert students. 

It came as the spread of Covid-19 is at record levels in the community, with thousands of new cases being confirmed each day and the highest number of hospitalisations since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Minister for Education Norma Foley said yesterday that schools are safe places but that the measures to close them are required to minimise the movement of people across the country. 

She said: “The education sector is, generously I would suggest, making this a gesture, so as to support society in doing now what it needs to do.”

She said it’s the government intention that the State exams will go ahead this year – which is why students will be allowed to attend class.

“I am very conscious, as indeed I believe all of society is, of the importance of delivering the traditional Leaving Certificate exam in June. And for that reason we have been planning in the last while to move in that direction,” Foley said.

Unions expressed their dissatisfaction with the plans, with TUI President Martin Marjoram saying today that an “unprecedented number” of teachers have reached out to the union with fears about physically returning to work from 11 January.

The three-days a week plan has not been welcomed by many Leaving Cert students, who already have missed three months of school during the initial stages of the pandemic and must return to school while the virus continues to rage. 

A number of students have taken the step of setting up their own group called 6th Year Boycott, calling on the government to offer predicted grades as an option for students and provide a guarantee that classes will be closed immediately if there is a confirmed Covid-19 case.

A spokesperson for the group told TheJournal.ie: “The government keep saying they’ll be trying to do a traditional Leaving Cert. there’s nothing traditional about sitting an exam in June after missing so much time.

It’s four days before we’re set to go back. They say societal pressures got them to close the schools in the first place. I think sustained societal pressure should be placed on this decision to open up three days a week at a time when Covid is rampant in the community. 

‘Putting our grades in front of our health’

Among the students who spoke to TheJournal.ie, there was a general sense that they’re worried that the re-opening schools could affect their health or that of a loved one, along with a sense of frustration at the lack of clarity regarding their upcoming exams. 

Brian O’Callaghan is a 6th-year student in Limerick. 

“From my perspective, our year has been abandoned,” he said. 

“As much as teachers and other school staff have tried their best, they simply can’t do enough. We have missed three months last year, and now with current circumstances, we are set to lose even more time in school. The entire year has been clouded by uncertainty and worry, adding to an already stressful point in any person’s life.”

O’Callaghan said that with mock exams and oral examinations on the horizon, there is a lack of clarity for students over how they will operate, or even if they’ll take place at all. 

He said: “We all have no idea how these exams will be carried out in a reasonable manner either. I think that’s a common thread in all the issues. Students have simply no clue what’s going to happen or when. We are yet to receive a timetable for the Leaving Cert.”

His comments were echoed by Julia Klorek, a 6th-year student in Kerry. 

“We’ve already missed a lot of tuition,” she said. “We have no idea what’ll happen with the orals or the mocks. We weren’t told anything. With yesterday’s announcement, it seems like the government is putting our grades in front of our health.”

Caoímhe Ní Chonchoille, from Tipperary, said the uncertainty around the situation is adding to the pressure being placed on students at what’s already a difficult time.

“I genuinely think that they have caused added stress and anxiety in a year that is already crammed full of both,” she said. “Minister Norma Foley continues to repeat the mantra that schools are ‘safe places’. I accept that that statement was true up until just prior to the Christmas break when cases were not at the worrying level they are currently at.

I really feel that more consideration needs to be taken when the lives and futures (and also the health) of a massive group in society is on the line. Speaking in her radio interview yesterday, Norma Foley commented that there are around 1 million people in the education sector, so reducing it to 60,000 is a good solution. I hate to have to say it but we are not expendable. Just because most of the students are underage doesn’t mean they can be dispensed of or sacrificed for the greater good of the education sector.

‘Our voices have been ignored’

Aoibhinn Clancy, from Dublin, believes that given the amount of time classes have already missed, the class of 2021 will be inadequately prepared for this year’s Leaving Certificate

“Our voices have been ignored by those in power since last year,” she said. “For example, the bare minimum was made in regards to changes to Leaving Cert papers and they are completely insufficient given the amount of time and coursework that has been missed.

“Many people are experiencing a lot of worry and stress due to personal situations brought about by this pandemic and it’s important to remember that a large majority are still children under the age of 18. It seems the government has no consideration for the mental health of young people and are instead prioritising this idea of a ‘traditional Leaving Certificate’ taking place.

These are not normal times and expecting students to carry on as though they are is ignorant and naive. Students are overwhelmed, confused, scared for their future, their health and the health of their families. Sending us into school cannot be justified. The logistics of it alone, like revised class timetables, staggered hours etc, would surely prove impossible for teachers, pupils and their families alike.

Adam Morris, from Meath, echoed the fears that loved ones may get sick.

He said: “Most of the people I have spoken to do not want to go back to school. We are scared and afraid not for ourselves but for other people, we may spread the virus to as well as the teachers who are more at risk than us from dying from the virus.

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“It has been made clear to us the students that an exam is more important than the lives of us students and our families.”

Others, such as Aengus Gilligan from Dublin, said that the current situation highlights the flaws inherent in the Leaving Cert itself.

Gilligan said: “This idea of a be-all and end-all exam after two years doesn’t make any sense in my opinion. We don’t judge a player on one game and decide if they’re worthy. There are so many mitigating factors that affect students even in normal years.

If we end up being back in the classroom it will be hard to focus on anything other than Covid. I’m looking at exams being cancelled around Europe and wondering what’s different about us.  The option of calculated grades appears to be the fairest and safest way forward. We have time to perfect the system and learn from last year’s mistakes. For those that want to and if it is safe, hold exams during the summer. This wouldn’t be perfect but that’s assuming that the leaving cert is. Instead the government yesterday announced the worst of all worlds.

‘Make a decision and execute it’

Many students just want the government to make a clear plan and stick to it, rather than moving the goalposts again at a later date. 

“They have five months, so make a decision and execute it,” Oisin Doyle said. “The message is clear. Most people don’t want to go to school. Many of them are just looking for an easy way out, I understand that however many of them genuinely don’t want to contract a virus and pass on to an elderly loved one, which, given the exponential rise in cases can be deemed as fair enough.”

The spokesperson for the 6th Year Boycott, meanwhile, said that their campaign isn’t about getting days off school or finding excuses to avoid school. 

“Students in Ireland are genuinely worried for their health, and the health of their families, and are rightly concerned about their futures, dependent so heavily on their Leaving Cert results,” he said.

Micheál Martin said yesterday that the personal decisions each and every one of us makes in the next month will affect how many will die. We don’t see why students should have to go to school in such a situation.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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