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'It is getting tougher': The toll home schooling is having on students and parents

“I don’t know how I can show my face in the school again. Everyone has been pitted against each other,” one parent said.

Image: Shutterstock/Juliya Shangarey

PARENTS AND STUDENTS have expressed concern about the continuation of schooling from home for another month at least, particularly for vulnerable children and Leaving Cert students. 

It comes as a HSE briefing document seen by TheJournal.ie warned of the effects that being out of school would have on young children’s learning.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland has said that the reopening of schools should be prioritised by the Government, as ”women are at breaking point as they continue to provide additional childcare and home schooling while closures remain in place”.

A mother of primary school children told TheJournal.ie that “people are falling apart”, and that relations between teachers and parents have become very tense.

“Absolutely it is [getting more difficult], relationships between parents and the schools have suffered, you have to fight for live Zoom calls – I don’t know how I can show my face in the school again. Everyone has been pitted against each other.”

“People who don’t normally get involved in campaigns have flipped,” she said.

The mother said that teachers seem to be “much more willing” to go back to school than unions would suggest, and are doing “much longer hours” than they would in a physical ‘in real life’ environment.

“The Government, NPHET, the unions all need to make this work,” she said, adding that it needed to be a whole-of-government response to get children back to school. 

‘Voices of children unheard’

A HSE briefing note dated on 5 January this year, and signed by three paediatric health experts, noted how the reopening of schools had been “widely debated”.

When asked, the HSE couldn’t provide clarify to the context of the briefing note.

“The voice of children, however, is once again left unheard,” it said. “It is important that decisions on the future education of children are based on the factors and facts that are important for them.”

The document notes that the closure of schools “reduces the opportunities for the acquisition of new knowledge, development and maintenance of peer-to-peer relationships and also results in loss of recently acquired skills”.

At a Tusla briefing held for parents of primary school children this week, TheJournal.ie was told that it was stated children aged 8-12 are most likely to suffer during social isolation, and that this is amplified over length of time. A request for confirmation of this was sent to Tusla, but a reply was not forthcoming at the time of publication.

The briefing note also states that the three months of education lost last year, coupled with any days this year, will result in losses that will not be “easily recouped”, with Junior and Leaving Cert students; children attending DEIS schools; children from families in low socioeconomic groups; and those with special educational needs worst affected.

In the most striking part of the document, it states:

It is predicted by the OECD that the current cohort of children in grades 1-12 can expect a 3% lower income over their lifetime. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be more severely impacted. Longer school closures will lower future potentials and incomes even further.
 This data is very robust. It’s based on extensive research showing that each additional year of schooling increases an individual’s life income by 7.5% – 10%. The strong correlation between years of schooling and income is probably one of the most robust findings of all empirical economic research.

The area of learning most affected by school closures is mathematics, the document said, adding that reading is adversely affected in those children from a disadvantaged background.

Secondary school students

Alison O’Sullivan, education officer at the ISSU, said that “it is getting tougher” in recent weeks for secondary school students.

“It’s important to say that the senior-cycle curriculum was not meant to be taught online, it’s made to be taught in a classroom. It’s never going to replace face-to-face learning. If we expect students to sit an exam, they have to have face-to-face learning.” 

“I live in rural Ireland, and Wifi is a huge issue. Resources are another big issue, where there might only be one laptop per family.

“This may surprise a lot of people, but a lot of students don’t have a digital device, or are doing their school work off their phone. Some may be looking after a younger sibling.”

David O’Gorman, a parent of secondary school students and a spokesperson for the parents’ group ETB National Parents Association, representing around a third of secondary schools, said that students were “running out of steam”.

“When it first kicked off, there was a bit of excitement. In the last two weeks the motivation has just gone.”

He said that many parents are reporting the sleep patterns of their children is a “big” problem, with some teenagers staying up until 2, 3 or 4am.

He said that the biggest problem was the inconsistency of schooling: “This isn’t online schooling, it’s emergency classes.”

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O’Gorman said that some classes last just 10-15 minutes, while others last 35 or 40 minutes. Some schools want students to have their cameras on, which some parents aren’t happy with. Other schools are only focusing on teaching the core subjects, he said. 

Timeline of schools reopening

At the beginning of the year, the Government announced that schools would stay closed until at least February as Ireland’s health system grappled with a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Although the Government and NPHET emphasised that schools were environments that Covid-19 was very unlikely to spread in, it took the decision to stop the movement of around 1 million people to and from school buildings.

Reopening schools would start with children with special educational needs, the Government said.

Although talks continued with unions and other stakeholders to do this, the closure of schools was extended as SNAs and teachers remained concerned at the safety of returning to schools during high numbers of Covid-19 cases and the new variants.

A briefing held on 18 January with 16,000 SNA teachers, lead by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn, failed to reassure teachers that schools were a safe environment to return to, particularly with a lack of data on the effect of new Covid variants.

This Thursday 11 February, 124 special schools reopened at 50% capacity. On Monday 22 February, classes for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools is due to resume.

At a NPHET briefing this week, Dr Glynn cautioned against reopening schools just yet.

“We still have more people in hospital than at any point last year, still more people in critical care… We are still seeing a level of disease transmission in the community that is far too high for a million people to go back.”

A campaign ‘Reopen Schools in real life’ has begun online this week, asking people to sign a petition to support schools being reopened as soon as possible. 

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