Ireland’s society and economy are interwoven in a rich tapestry which highlights how interconnected and interdependent we are. Integral to that tapestry is the education system, from early learning and care (ELC) right through to tertiary education. Pulling at any one thread risks an unravelling and damage to other areas of our society.
This week some childcare settings reopened while primary schools have officially closed for summer. At this time it is important to reflect, in order to take the necessary steps towards a full reopening in September.
In a rapid response to the Covid-19 crisis, childcare and education relocated exclusively to the home. Though not without its difficulties, employers and employees worked together to try to create flexible solutions for those juggling work with childcare needs and a version of “home schooling”.
Yet inconsistencies emerged as different schools and teachers provided different approaches to continuity, while parents often lacked the relevant resources, including time, to deliver this education.
The collective expectation was that this temporary situation would end and we would return to a reality where, even if some continued to work from home, school and childcare would safely reopen to restore some normality to the working day for child and adult alike. But, as weeks turned into months and a long summer looms ahead, the frustration has built and the balance of risk shifted.
A glaring omission in the rephasing of the roadmap for reopening Ireland, announced recently, is the lack of reference to school reopening which, along with childcare and after-school programmes, is a pressing obstacle to labour market and societal recovery.
While people, communities and businesses positively welcome the opportunity for an economy reboot, the government’s guidance has resulted in confusion and led to fears that parents and children will continue to carry the burden if the school timetable is significantly disrupted.
Ireland is becoming an outlier in comparison to other EU countries. International evidence so far suggests that the reopening of schools and crèches has not increased coronavirus infection rates among students, parents and staff. This bodes well for a safe return in Ireland to primary education and childcare settings.
Denmark successfully reopened some school and childcare facilities on April 15, months ahead of Ireland’s scheduled reopening. This has provided us with a large window of opportunity to learn and to adopt an appropriate approach for Ireland. Research from the HSE has concluded that schools are not a high-risk setting for Covid-19 transmission, while the ELC sector is heavily regulated with the highest standards of health and safety already in place.
Reopening schools and childcare facilities is also a prerequisite to tapping into the full productive capacity of the workforce. The national plan for economic recovery is undermined unless this issue is treated as seriously as other key aspects of the response.
Children are now at significant risk of social isolation, growing anxiety, education disengagement, and a reduction in language, literacy and numerical skills. All the while pressure is mounting on their parents, eager to fully participate in the labour market in a more focused and manageable way.
The pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies in the Irish education system and its supporting infrastructure, such as classroom overcrowding and access to broadband and ICT hardware and software. It has highlighted that digital competencies of school leaders, educators, parents and students are not yet at a level required to deliver engaging and dynamic blended or online learning. As a result, anger and anxiety is growing over a muted blended learning approach earmarked for September.
At the same time the lack of discussion about the importance of early childhood care and education is part of a larger issue for the sector which is not acknowledged for its importance in facilitating not only children’s social, emotional and educational development in their most formative years, but also in enabling working parents to fully participate in the labour market.
Although there has been increased state funding, Ireland still fails to meet Unicef targets and is the second lowest in the OECD for public spending in the sector. The funding model for childcare in Ireland is broken, with parents affected by the high costs of quality care, low-paid employees lacking a clear career path, and many providers struggling to sustain businesses under significant administration, regulation and inspection demands and increasing commercial rates and insurance costs.
While the finance injection to the childcare sector is welcome to enable the necessary adjustments for reopening, increased state funding and support must become more sustainable.
As Ireland re-emerges from the crisis, it is essential that the ELC sector and the education sector are reimagined to develop in a stronger structural position. The clock is ticking. The summer months should be viewed as a critical planning phase. It is the time to focus on developing critical safety protocols and clear and consistent communication methods and delivering the necessary training to school staff, teachers and parents to ensure a safe return and reopening in full.
In addition, there must be an effective testing, tracking and tracing of future cases of Covid-19 to control and prevent further transmission. Crucially the solution needs to be consistent across childcare providers and educators so as not to create further complexities for parents.
Failure to do this may have far-reaching implications for the development of our children, for the ability of employers to reboot their industries and organisations, and indeed for the progress in gender balance hard won over the last number of years as women are the likely career casualties if decisions between care and work are required.
Government must assess the risks worth taking for the future of our society and economy, and indeed the damage that may be caused through the failure to move forward and act for a safe return. Otherwise children and families may become the collateral damage of Covid-19.
Claire McGee is Ibec’s head of education policy and Kara McGann is head of social policy at the employers’ organisation