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Lessons Learned? The Reopening of Schools

On the 27th August, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) published the results of a survey on educational experience during lockdown and the reopening of schools.  Social Impact of COVID-19 Survey August 2020: The Reopening of Schools was undertaken “primarily to measure attitudes around returning to school for the 2020/2021 academic year” and provides insights into the challenges and expectations of students and parents as they take their first steps back.

Impact of School Closures

The study found that more than four in ten of the respondents with children in primary or secondary school (40.7 per cent and 45.7 per cent respectively) reported a Major or Moderate negative impact on their child’s learning as a result of school closures due to COVID-19.  The rate of reported negative impact was higher for children about to sit State exams, with 67 per cent of respondents with children due to complete their Leaving Certificate reporting that the school closures had a Major or Moderate negative impact on their learning.

However, school provides so much more than formal education.  In terms of social development, 40.3 per cent of respondents with children in primary school and 43.2 per cent with children in secondary school reported a Major or Moderate negative impact.  Again, the rate of reported negative impact was higher for respondents with children about to sit their Leaving Certificate, with 53.3 per cent reporting a Major or Moderate negative impact on their child’s social development.  This is not only a concern for schools, but also for universities with whom these children will be engaging as first year students in often remote or blended learning programmes. 

In terms of time spent on school work during lock down, according to the CSO Survey, over two-thirds (66.6 per cent) of respondents with primary school children, and two in five (41.3 per cent) of respondents with secondary school children, reported that their children spent two hours or less on learning activities.

According to research undertaken by Mary Immaculate College in Limerick[1] based on a sample of 512 parents of children aged 1 to 10, 71 per cent of children aged 6 to 10 spent less time on school work than before school closures, but 74 per cent of children spent more time on outdoor play than before the crisis and 90 per cent had done sports or some physical activity at least three times per week.  Meanwhile, the results of a survey of parents of primary-school children conducted by Trinity College Dublin[2] (Trinity) showed that just over half of respondents continued to learn enough during school closures, with a quarter reporting that their children had not continued to learn enough.  Poor school communication and lack of parental time were among the reasons cited as impacting on learning.  Consistency of approach and access to IT infrastructure also caused difficulties for some children, with one fifth of households surveyed reporting not having access to a good internet connection.

Research suggests that play is an important educational environment for young children[3], therefore a reduction in structured learning for younger children may be compensated in part by an increase in unstructured and outdoor play.

A further study by researchers at Trinity[4] found that four out of five students in secondary school reported that their workload had increased during school closures, with many finding this increase difficult to manage and that it increased their stress levels.  This survey, in which over 1,000 students from 15 schools participated, found that students had mixed feelings on the cancellation of State exams, with half agreeing or strongly agreeing with the cancellation of the Leaving Certificate examinations and just 33 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing with the use of calculated grading. 

Returning to School

More than 8 in ten parents who responded to the CSO survey (86.1 per cent) expressed some concern about the capacity of their children’s school to provide a safe environment on their return, with 17.2 per cent reporting being extremely concerned.  Catching or spreading COVID-19 is the most common concern for children, with 46.3 per cent of parents of secondary school children and 33.9 per cent of parents of primary school children reporting this, followed by social distancing rules in school (40.1 per cent of parents of secondary school children and 24.7 per cent of parents of primary school children).  Almost one in four parents of secondary school children (36.2 per cent) reported having fallen behind because of lockdown as a concern, and 17.4 per cent of parents of primary school children reported leaving the home a concern, compared to 8.1 per cent of parents of secondary school children.

Future Closures

The CSO survey also asked parents about the impact of future school closures.  Over half of parents (56.1 per cent) responded that their work pattern would be impacted, compared to 17.4 per cent who responded that there would be no effect on their work and 26.5 per cent who did not know. When asked if they could work from home if their children’s school had to close again, 20.6 per cent said they could take holidays or annual leave, and 12.5 per cent responded that they may have to give up work.

Almost one third (29.7 per cent) of parents of Leaving Certificate pupils reported being extremely concerned about the ability of their child’s school to provide adequate supports for home learning, compared to 14.6 per cent of Junior Certificate pupils and 13 per cent of primary school children.

Parents of primary school children were also asked about their own ability to provide adequate support with home learning, with 21.5 per cent responding that they were extremely concerned, and parents of senior primary children (second to sixth class) being more likely to be extremely concerned than those in younger classes.

Education Policy

As discussed in our article from earlier this year, policy measures must be introduced to mitigate the impact of the recent, and any future, school closures and improve educational outcomes particularly for pupils experiencing educational disadvantage. This must be prioritised as part of a new social contract and underpinned in Budget 2021 with investment in infrastructure, technology and staff resources.