Caillum Hedderman, a sixth year student in John the Baptist Community School in Hospital
ONE voice that has been largely absent in the debate about reopening schools has been the students themselves.
Caillum Hedderman, a sixth year student from Ballybricken, says their voices needs to be heard.
"Education should never be a question of risking life or death, yet students and school communities are faced with this harsh dilemma with the planned reopening of schools approaching.
"Second level students have actively voiced their sincere concerns regarding the actions taken by the Department of Education since March of last year and the lack of clear communication and infrastructure planning during the pandemic - it seems lessons of the need for forward planning and clarity have not been learned.
"The exponential increase in confirmed cases of Covid-19 over the New Year period has highlighted questions on the feasibility of schools reopening and highlighted confusion and a lack of clarity for students across the country as infection transmission continues to grow," said Caillum.
He cites a survey conducted by RTE on the Leaving Certificate class of 2020 highlighted that 46% of polled students reported high levels of depression and/or anxiety due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"As a sixth year student, I believe that the current Governmental reaction to the prolonged effect of this pandemic will result in a similar, if not increasingly significant, pattern for students.
"If the safety of schools and the health and students and staff cannot be ensured during the reopening of schools this month then the Government is valuing school attendance and an educational system greater than the health of our school communities. This feels as if student health is being politicised. The Government's flagship plan to keep schools open is failing and we are caught in the middle.
"There is a growing sense of frustration and anxiety among students and their families as Minister for Education, Norma Foley, states her 'firm intention' to reopen schools next week, a holiday extension of only three days, despite the record increase in confirmed cases of Covid-19 and higher community transmission levels during the third wave of the pandemic in Ireland," said Caillum, who attends John the Baptist Community School in Hospital.
Upon the reopening of schools, he says second level students will be in contact with hundreds of fellow students and teachers which completely diminishes the principle of the holiday extension which Ms Foley states "affords families and society an opportunity to ensure their contacts are minimised".
"We cannot afford to risk the health of our school communities and unfortunately any fault in these policies is not an administrative or policy failure but it will have a clear and direct risk which could result in the significant loss of lives.
"We as students are faced with the incredibly unfair dilemma of placing our education over our personal health and those we live with. A combination of increased workload due to a loss of classroom time, looming examinations and project deadlines, very little social interactions, a lack of emotional supports along with the typical pressures of teenage life are inevitably impacting our mental health," said Caillum, who faces the reality of sitting his Leaving Certificate in June this year.
"As we see the increase in confirmed cases, an extension of the return to school post-Christmas and a clear lack of preparation from the Department of Education, we are gravely concerned that we will see a repeat of the disarray of the Leaving Certificate calculated grades process last year.
"The lack of specific detail and clarity regarding the state examinations in 2021 is not only taking a toll on our wellbeing but also heavily impacting the decisions on our continuation of studies next year, as 10% of students last year who received calculated grades lower than they should have due to a coding error which resulted in many students not receiving offers for their desired college course or any placement offers at all.
"As we concentrate on finding alternate solutions to the traditional reopening of schools, we are faced with many barriers. Remote learning was the direction of action in early March last year, launching students and teachers into months of online schooling with next to no preparation. Unfortunately, we have not seen any improvements or learning being introduced into this approach by the system. Blended learning serves as another option, with students attending schools in reduced numbers at intervals with a combination of online engagement."
Regardless of either approach, there is a clear disadvantage from school to school and household to household. he says.
"Access to education should never be an issue in our country yet many second level students found themselves unable to attend school due to not having the ability to engage in remote learning. Whether it was sharing one device between multiple family members or having access to a device at all, along with the prevalent broadband issues in rural Ireland, many students were left at a disadvantage to their peers due to these simple issues.
"As we are faced by these many barriers it is important to note, I am in no way negating the sacrifice and losses that this virus has brought on our communities and overall population. I strongly believe we need to recognise the personal sacrifices and efforts of our teachers, management and school staff, without their effort our schools would never have had the ability to reopen in September and function as they have. I wish to make a special mention of my own school, John the Baptist Community School in Hospital, who have worked diligently within the constraints of available government policies and support.
"Education is not just about homework, books, classrooms and progressing through a curriculum, we recognise these are essential elements but we also learn from our everyday life experiences and we are currently not being provided with an inspired example within the actions of our government towards students. We recognise that no one person has all the solutions but given the very changing nature of this pandemic, we need the Department of Education to learn from past experience and adapt policy to reflect the needs, rights and concerns of second level student as key stakeholders in our educational system. This urgently requires proactivity, not reactivity."
Caillum says these are his and his peers formative years where "we learn to deal and cope with the challenges and adversity of adolescent life but unfortunately the principle of ‘education at all costs’ and a lack of government understanding of the concerns of students is not providing our generation with that opportunity".
"Without immediate clear and decisive action, we will lose the potential of another year of education across all forms of schooling. To many readers, losing one year of education may not seem like such a big issue in the context of a pandemic. To secondary students, especially us in our final year: it is our everything.
"The actions taken over the coming weeks and months will have a lasting impact on the direction many of us take. As future contributors to the economy and civil society, we are calling on the policy makers to recognise this and make the morally correct decisions based on public health advice and the evidence from last year."