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Coronavirus Ireland: Digital divide is leaving many pupils disadvantaged during school closures - report


Four in 10 – 39pc - of principals agreed that there was a digital divide in their school, although the majority - 44pc - did not know. Stock Image

Four in 10 – 39pc - of principals agreed that there was a digital divide in their school, although the majority - 44pc - did not know. Stock Image

Four in 10 – 39pc - of principals agreed that there was a digital divide in their school, although the majority - 44pc - did not know. Stock Image

The digital divide is leaving many pupils disadvantaged during the current schools’ closure, according to new research.

It has emerged as one of the key concerns in a survey of 2,808 principals/deputy principals – about 85pc of all primary schools - conducted since the shutdown of the education system.

The Maynooth University study explored how schools have been adapting since the sudden closures on March 12.

Study authors Jolanta Burke and Majella Dempsey report how teachers outlined the difficulties in mimicking certain aspects of school life, and cited concerns about the digital divide that exists across schools.

Four in 10 – 39pc - of principals agreed that there was a digital divide in their school, although the majority - 44pc - did not know.

The researchers say it highlights a clear digital divide – across hardware, software and technological skills - reinforcing the social inequalities in society.

The divide can be an issue both for teachers and pupils, according to the ‘COVID-19 Practice in Primary Schools in Ireland Report’.

“Different levels of capacity, skills and access creates an unfair playing field which means that some teachers and pupils are struggling with the support and upskilling necessary to bridge this gap” the study states.

But while noting that the system is in a “steep learning curve” around online learning and teaching, “from this report, we are doing well”, according to the authors.

Among the report’s recommendations are for more practical and tailored guidance to guide home-based learning, as well as a managing of expectations generally so as to avoid comparing different schools and approaches in an unhelpful manner.

Participants in the survey had questioned the accuracy of terms such as ‘distance learning’ or ‘delivering the curriculum’ and the report states that it’s not about ‘curriculum delivery’, but about supporting children’s learning at home.

“The focus should be on what pupils can learn in the current circumstances and how teachers can support that learning,“ it states.

The findings from the Maynooth University study have been used to inform updated Department of Education’s Guidance on Continuity of Schooling advice to schools, published last night.

However, that document has triggered a row because the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said they were not consulted about the guidance in advance of publication.

On the digital divide issue, the Department’s guidance does not address it specifically, although it does point to the range of ways that schools can support contact with families and pupil learning and officials are working directly with some schools.

Other findings from the Maynooth study include that Irish is the most difficult subject to adapt for distance learning, while English, Social, Environmental and Scientific Education (SESE), Physical Education and Mathematics are the easiest

The research team found many schools have arrangements in place aimed at maintaining communication with pupils at least once a week as well as keeping parents informed.

Some schools keep a daily contact with students by involving them in competitions or sending those daily activities and/or thoughts.

They also looked at the frequency of interaction between teachers and pupils and parents and found that 29pc of teachers were in daily contact with pupils and 43pc were in weekly contact.

A week into the shutdown, up to half of mainstream schools had contacted none or only a few of their parents to check whether the amount and pacing of work is suitable for them and pupils. The rate was higher in special schools, but one in 10 had not contacted parents .

Some principals reported not being able to make contact with some families and some parents are not engaging with the school despite many efforts by the schools.

“Following on from this report, schools may choose to put a strategy in place on how they can maintain regular contact with their pupils and parents, as well as consider a non-digital provision for some children, given the level of digital divide around the country.

“Equally, the Department of Education and Skills may also choose to set up and communicate clear guidelines to schools as to the level of engagement that schools should practice.”

The report notes the plethora of resources being made available online, but principals report that auditing all of these is very time consuming, parents report that they are overwhelmed.

Apart from teaching and learning the study addresses wellbeing, both for pupils and teachers, and identified pupils with special educational needs and infant pupils in particular as a key concern for schools across the country.

A significant number of principals reported that pupils were missing school and missing their friends and miss out on the social aspects of school, but that they were developing life skills and skills in independent learning, problem-solving and independence.

Over half of principals mentioned the impact for 6th class pupils who will miss out on the important events such as class trips, end-of-year celebrations and other events that mark their transition from primary to second-level.

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