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Secondary student 'No one has asked us how we feel about returning to school'

Secondary student Beth Doherty says it’s unfair for Government to make sweeping decisions about school closure and exams in 2021 without consulting students.

BEING IN 6TH year has never been easy, and has definitely not been made better by the pandemic which has uprooted so many areas of our society. As we face a third wave, far worse than our first when schools closed back in March, questions are now being asked about whether we can return to school and what lies in store for the class of 2021.

Throughout all of this, one thing is clear. Students’ voices must be heard in every decision that impacts us and those decisions must ensure a level playing field for all.

I am not a scientist, but I am a student. Students are scared, we go into school buildings of 500 or more people on a daily basis. Mask wearing can be patchy, social distancing not always enforced.

We live with a fear of contracting the virus in school and transmitting that to our families, some of whom may be at risk of severe consequences if they do get the virus.

We’re seeing another national lockdown, yet when we raise our concerns about schools remaining open in their current form, we get little to no response.

Another lockdown, more exam stress

This is not to say the government is not trying, it’s an extremely difficult and unprecedented situation we have found ourselves in.

However, that does not mitigate the fact that students are not being listened to, and do not feel secure returning to school in the near future.

Alongside this is the issue of exam years. Calculated grades for the class of 2020 was a challenge for everyone, students, teachers and the Department of Education. At this point in the year for the class of 2021, calculated grades cannot be implemented in a fair or representative manner.

Questions around whether we will receive these grades, however, have prompted stress amongst students with a lingering fear that every test you sit might end up contributing to those grades you receive in August.

We need clear messaging around whether these grades will be implemented, and with a lack of clear decisions around school closures, this area is becoming more and more confusing.

A fresh approach

The government and NPHET seem to be approaching this question in a black-and-white manner – it’s either schools are fully open in-person, or they are fully open online. This does not need to be the case.

If 3rd and 6th years are sent home, there is immediately the issue of the digital divide. A complete switch to online learning for these years will worsen the gaps in teaching that have already been experienced from the shortening of the last school year.

The Ombudsman for Children has already warned against a blanket closure of schools, with clear evidence that this disproportionately affects disabled students and students from lower-income backgrounds.

Students who cannot access the technology, whose schools do not have the capacity to properly implement online tuition, whose parents cannot work from home will lose out. In exam years that have already fallen behind, this cannot be allowed to happen.

If schools do close for an extended period of time, there must be a clear plan in place to ensure access to online learning to the same standard and an even educational playing field. Without this, there is no way exams of any kind can proceed in a fair way. 

We need a nuanced take on this issue. Schools cannot reopen in their current form, not with the stress and fear that students are currently experiencing.

However, we also cannot fully close schools for another few weeks as to do so would disadvantage 3rd and 6th years, particularly with the mocks fast approaching and a lack of access to online learning.

Long-term thinking

Therefore, the Department should examine partial closures, with schools remaining open for those exam years and 5th years – in a similar way as proposed by the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU). This will limit numbers in schools while allowing teachers to provide online learning for students directly from classrooms.

We can provide for students who cannot learn from home due to family circumstances, and above all keep students safe. Students in exam years who cannot come into school, whether they themselves or their family are high-risk, should be supported to learn from home to the same standard.

Every action taken must be with the aim of limiting transmission in schools, without disadvantaging or reducing tuition for exam year students who have already missed so much.

Now is not the time for inaction. This is a time where, more than ever, students must be meaningfully included in decision-making. We must keep the Leaving Cert fair and provide clarity to students throughout this entire process.

We cannot open schools in their current forms, but we can approach this in a nuanced and reasonable manner which does not disadvantage exam years while also protecting students and allowing us to address their growing fears and anxieties.

If we listen to students, approach this in the ways outlined above, act responsibly and do what needs to be done we can overcome this and provide safe and sustainable learning and exam environment for all students.

Beth Doherty is a secondary school student from Dublin.

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