Even one-metre rule will hinder September return to school, says Education Minister

Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education said “We are waiting to see what sort of blended education system we are going to have.” 
By Jess Casey

Students will not all return to school together, even if social distancing rules are relaxed, the Minister for Education has warned.

Serious challenges remain for schools even if the two-metre social distancing rule is reduced to one, according to Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education.

"It is very hard to see all students back in September, even with a one-metre rule," Mr McHugh said. While blended learning, a mix of learning in a classroom and online at home, looks set to become a mainstay when school buildings reopen, the Department of Education doesn't know yet what classrooms will look like, he added. 

“We are waiting to see what sort of blended education system we are going to have.” 

The Department of Education is looking at countries that have reopened their schools, including Germany, Denmark, France, and Greece, he added. 

In two weeks, the Department of Education will publish a roadmap for schools on planning their return. Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan will also have public health advice within two weeks on reopening school buildings, Mr McHugh told RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney.

However, it will be a matter of balancing risks, Mr McHugh said, later adding that there are some children who have regressed since the schools were directed to shut their doors back in March. “We have to balance all the risks. We cannot put the education of children on hold.”

The Minister also defended directions to teachers to securely destroy all documents that they create when it comes to reaching a decision on a student's calculated grade in the Leaving Cert.

He denied that destroying the associated paperwork will only stand to benefit teachers, and it will not protect students who are unhappy with their grades. 

Under the guidelines set out by the Department of Education, students' appeals will be confined to checking that data was transferred and inputted correctly. The mark that they receive from a teacher is final, and cannot be appealed. 

"It's not just a singular, independent decision by a teacher," Mr McHugh said. "There are checks and balances within the school system to make sure things are done fairly, and that they have the evidence to back a decision up." 

Meanwhile, all teachers involved in the calculate grades process should complete training on unconscious bias, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has said. 

The Commission has written to Mr McHugh, asking the Department of Education to give further effect to its own warning to teachers on the risk of unconscious bias by issuing specific guidance to teachers on how to mitigate the associated risks.

Official guidelines issued to teachers say that estimates can be affected by what a teacher knows or thinks about a student's family or socio-economic background, or by their experience and perceptions of the student’s behaviour in class. 

Acting chief commissioner Dr Frank Conaty said research shows high-attaining and disadvantaged students are more likely to receive more pessimistic grade predictions.

“The stakes for individual students are too high not to make every effort to mitigate the risk that discrimination – however inadvertent – could make existing inequalities even worse.”