A row has erupted over new Department of Education guidance for schools on how to keep learning going during the Covid-19 shutdown.
The advice includes that primary teachers should, if possible, engage with their pupils every day and that post-primary teachers should do so on the days that they are normally timetabled for lessons with students.
The new Guidance on Continuity of Schooling notes that many schools and teachers are making huge efforts to support students at home.
It includes of examples of good practice that has been happening in school communities since the sudden shut-down, and makes a range of suggestions about how to maintain contact with, and support students and parents.
However, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has condemned a “lack of consultation” on the document and said it had offered to help draft this guidance, having produced a large body of advice for its members in recent weeks.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said it was “wholly unacceptable that this important document should have been published without any consultation with the union representing primary school teachers and principals, despite our repeated offers to aid the department in formulating such a document.
“The timing of issue is terrible, emerging on a Friday where schools are due to commence an Easter closure during which many parents would reasonably anticipate less emphasis on formal learning supports.”
He said that throughout the current crisis INTO members had risen to the challenge and continue to provide an ongoing education service to their pupils in extraordinary times, guided by a belief that “we are all in this together and must endeavour to work together in the common interest.
“It’s just not good enough to set aside appropriate consultation processes and proper communications during a national emergency. Surely the least that’s to be expected is that the voices and expertise of teachers’ representatives would be heeded at a time like this.”
The guidance issued to schools, at both primary and post-primary level and published on the Department of Education’s website last night, states “it is critical to ensure that the momentum of has issue learning is not lost.”
It also addresses the issue of the State exams and says teachers should continue to prepare candidates “using the most effective tools and resources available to them”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday that they were working to ensure that exams would go ahead “by hook or by crook”.
A Department of Education spokesperson said today that decisions on holding the exams would be based on the public health advice and on what the Government decides in relation to current restrictions.
It acknowledges that it is a particularly difficult time for students who are homeless or marginalised, students with special educational needs, students whose families are experiencing stress and uncertainty, and exam candidates. It recommends that schools employ specific and customised supports for students at risk of educational disadvantage.
The document draws from the experience of different types of schools that are actively engaging with their students using a range of approaches and resources.
It is largely based on by the findings of a telephone survey by school inspectors in the past few weeks, a survey among 2,808 primary school principals/deputy principals, conducted by Maynooth University, and a survey of post-primary schools.
Ironically, it comes on the day that schools would normally be closing for the Easter holidays and it is expected that teachers will take their usual two week break.
As well as range of advice on different ‘from a distance’ teaching and learning approaches, and the online communications platforms that are working well, it also suggests that schools could host assemblies on local community radio and other meeting platforms.
For pupils with special education needs, it suggests that resource teacher send packages of supports to parents and guardians and engage with their students through e-mail, apps such as Skype and Seesaw and through virtual learning environments.
It stresses the importance of feedback and says teachers should ensure that they respond regularly to students on the work that they submit. Schools are also encouraged to consult with students and their parents/guardians on how well the arrangements are working for them.
The Department acknowledges that it is a particularly challenging time for parents/guardians, many of whom will be worried for older or vulnerable family members and concerned about the fact that their children are missing so much school.
So, it says school should be judicious about the amount of work sent home for students as “too much can be as much a problem as too little”.
However, it also gives an example of how one post-primary school in Munster, which is helping parents to upskill by directing them towards training in the use of Google Classroom so they can support their children in the use of the platform which was already in use in the school. If students do not engage, these families are contacted and further support is offered.
But it’s not all about technology and schools are asked to encourage parents/guardians to engage in non-formal learning activities where appropriate, such as reading with and to children and taking part in daily exercise.
The document also addresses the widely varying ICT skills levels among teachers and points to a one-hour course from the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) covering how to get started, find online resources, communicate with students and create digital resources.
At school level, among its recommendations are regular collaboration between school leaders and teaching staff and communications between teachers to maintain staff relations, support each other and to plan and co-ordinate students’ learning.
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