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Heads say exams to go ahead despite Covid concerns

Close attention paid to Limerick as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and close contacts linked to students in the mid-west has risen in recent weeks


Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Principals are satisfied Leaving Cert exams can take place safely this week, despite concerns some students will miss out because of Covid-19. 

Senior school staff in Limerick are particularly worried about the impact of a local spike in cases with exams due to start on Wednesday.

There are concerns about students mixing in recent weeks, with some availing of tutorials and grinds before the exams to make up for lost class time during the pandemic. Some teachers are unhappy that students from various schools have been mixing in these settings, raising questions about the integrity of student pods and bubbles in individual schools afterwards.

Leaving Cert students are to be kept in pods during the exams to minimise disruption to other pupils in the event of localised outbreaks of the virus.

Sources told the Sunday Independent some schools have contacted operators of grinds and tutorials, asking them to ensure their pupils are not mixing with other student groups.

Meanwhile, some schools contacted parents of exam pupils in the build up to the Leaving Cert, appealing for their households to take a cautious approach to the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and throughout the exams to limit students being exposed.

National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) president Michael Cregan hopes exams will be able to go ahead safely. He said measures taken by Education Minister Norma Foley and the State Examinations Commission are helpful.

“Students doing exams are very conscientious and want to try to improve on the predicted grades that have already been made available to them,” Mr Cregan told the Sunday Independent.

“Even though they are unaware what those grades are, they are trying to enhance their options by taking up both. Students and parents are being very diligent.”

Mr Cregan, who is principal of Laurel Hill Secondary School FCJ in Limerick, said Leaving Cert students there are traditionally spread across several rooms in its buildings during the State exams. This year, there will be 10 exam centres there to allow for social distancing and the creation of student pods to minimise disruption in the event of a student or group being confirmed as a close contact of a positive case of Covid-19.

“We as principals are concerned about the high Covid-19 numbers in Limerick, but will do our best to ensure the Leaving Cert goes ahead as long as the HSE advise that it is safe to do so, Mr Cregan said.

“Students are going to be in bubbles for the exams and we have to commend the State Examinations Commission that they have put them in more exam centres with a view to maintaining them all the way to the end of the exams, even as the number of students sitting exams gets very small as they progress through the various optional subjects.”

These measures are to be replicated in schools across the country.

However, schools have said they are concerned about turning away symptomatic students who may show up for exams, saying those who feel they can improve on their predicted grades may be disappointed if they are told they cannot enter an exam centre.

Some are particularly concerned about pupils mixing with students from other schools while attending grinds.

“It is a worry that students are mixing inside in these centres,” a source said. “It is very hard to keep them apart if they are all coming in and out the same front door, and students by their nature will want to chat and say hello to each other. It is very difficult.”

Sources said some schools have asked students to self-isolate with their families in the two weeks leading up to the exams, where possible.

HSE Chief Clinical Officer Colm Henry said students who “worked so hard during the year” should not jeopardise their opportunity to sit an exam.

Public health officials last week admitted it was inevitable a “small number” of Leaving Cert students would “miss out” on sitting the State exams as a result of contracting the virus or being identified as a close contact of a confirmed Covid-19 case.

They advised students to avoid indoor gatherings and take measures to limit their contacts before and during the Leaving Cert.

The Department of Public Health Mid-West confirmed some students in its region are among those affected by the recent surge in cases amid significant spread of the virus in Limerick city and county, where the incidence rate for the past fortnight increased to 425 per 100,000 people.

Some schools in the area were found to have been a factor in the transmission of the virus recently, with contact tracing teams last week getting in touch with parents of pupils due to sit exams this Wednesday.

Earlier this year, students were given the option of availing of an accredited grade or sitting an exam. Almost all students (99pc) opted for an accredited grade in at least one subject. Most (91pc) chose to sit at least one exam.

Students who wanted sit an exam but are prevented from doing so because of the pandemic will be given an accredited grade.

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