Education: Another casualty of Covid-19

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Author: Pauline Garvey is a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology in Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland. She is also part of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: Ireland

‘Stay Home’ graffiti in a Dublin park. Photo by Pauline Garvey

Friday, May 29th. Secondary schools close for the summer holidays until the last week of August. Primary schools remain closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, although they don’t break up for holidays until the end of June.  If they return in autumn, the schools in Ireland will have been closed from mid-March to September: five and a half months.

Education has been one of the most profiled and controversial casualties of Covid-19 in Ireland. Firstly, Ireland has a stringent lockdown in place, and the easing of restrictions are slower and more tentative here. Although the lockdown began in mid-March, we are only in Phase 2 (out of 5) of the ‘roadmap’ to reopen society. From May 18th to June 8th people may now travel within 5 km of their homes, and four people from different households may meet in outdoor locations as long as they observe the 2-metre social distancing rule. Apart from some essential and outdoor shops (garden centres, household stores), most businesses remain closed and cafes and restaurants may open on June 29th.  Hairdressers and barbers may reopen after July 20th as can the movement of people beyond 20th km, and it is only after August 10th that we will see the opening of hotels and pubs, as well as museums and churches. While questions have been increasingly asked about the slow pace and the 2-metre distance rule, the prime minister has responded by suggesting that relaxation of the rules should be addressed through political consensus and he suggested that the Covid-19 committee might be the place where broad agreement could emerge[1].

Consensus, thus, is a highly valued and has been one of the cornerstones for what has seemed to work well so far. Commentary in newspapers and national and online media speak of the ‘social solidarity’ of the lockdown and the broad popular agreement with lockdown and the easing of restrictions. However, there are places where the fractures in consensus are appearing, and education is one of them. For a start there are controversies over the educational vacuum for children with special needs, or confusion over the reopening of schools and universities. However, debate has been more widespread and more vociferous regarding the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Certificate is the university matriculation examination and the final exam of the Irish secondary school system. Early in the lockdown it was postponed until 29th July. Then on 8th May the Department of Education determined that holding the exams would pose too much of a risk to students’ health and to those running the state exam. The alternative offered was a system of calculated grades or sitting Leaving Certificate written examinations at a later date, measures announced by The Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh[2] .

Immediately, students and their parents had questions. What about those repeating the exam, or those being homeschooled? What about subjects being studied outside of school? Then teachers voiced concern about being ‘canvassed’ by students or their parents. Particularly in small towns, the anonymity of the grading system was essential. In this new proposal, the local school teacher would be calculating grading for students, and could, therefore, anticipate some level of canvassing or even harassment by students or their parents. Adding to the confusion, the teacher’s union became involved (ASTI) and demanded full indemnity for teachers to be made available by the Department of Education. This financial indemnity had to be secured before teachers could proceed ‘without fear of negative financial consequences”[3].

Approximately 60,000 school leavers signed up for calculated grades. Still, though, parents wonder if the Leaving Cert could not have gone ahead. With all the primary and secondary schools in the state closed, was it really not possible to ensure social distancing while holding the exam? This commentary amongst parents was even more animated with the sunny weather when groups of teenagers could be seen congregating in local parks. And still, there is still a lot of uncertainly as to whether young people will actually return to full-time schooling at the end of August.  At a minimum, it seems unlikely that they will resume as before, something that was hinted at by the Education Minister when he said it is “hard to see” all students returning to school by September if the two-metre rule remains in place. The road forward couldn’t be less clear.




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