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That pot Kenny show on Newstalk. Now, for the first time since March, children in Ireland woke up early this morning, put on their uniforms and headed off to school once again as 4000 primary and secondary schools begin reopening. I'm joined by Education Minister Feigner, faulted for Kerry at Norma Foley.
Minister, good morning and welcome. Good morning. Thank you.
You have had a baptism of fire. There's no question about that. The latest thing you've had to organise is the exam, the written exams to replace those that might have taken place in er June for November. That's right, indeed. Well, it's certainly been an eventful number of months, but that's correct. And we have just now given advice that the exams will take place on the 16th of November and it's an option for those who choose not to engage with the calculus grades or indeed those who have taken the calculated grades and and wish to have the second option of the and of the written exams.
And they can presumably compare how well they do and the written exams with the the grade they were given as a predictive grade pick, the better of the two acquisitively and choose the better of the two.
That's entirely up to the students.
Now some people are suggesting that, you know, since there won't be orals and practicals and so on, that people that might have shone in that regard, you know, who are just terrified by our written exams that they won't be able to compensate in any way with the absence of these things.
And it's not fair on them. What do you say?
Well, look, to be fair, I suppose that we would have to say in the first instance, you know, we are living in extraordinary times and and extraordinary measures have been brought in as a consequence. And so we have calculated grades up and we have the option, as we said now, which is the written exam, it wouldn't be feasible at this stage to to offer the opportunity in terms of the awards. And that would actually I must clarify that there are some subjects that will already have had an element of the of marks already awarded in terms of their practical aspects.
So that would apply to subjects like home economics, the portfolio that would have been adjudicated, design and communication graphics, and the physical education and activity project and engineering. So because they were already completed and they can be adjudicated as part of the written exams. OK, so it still might be somewhat unfair to some people, but we, as you say, live in extraordinary times. Now, the Times might even get more extraordinary.
And many of our listeners are asking, what happens if there's an outbreak in a school? What happens if one student? Let's start with one student test positive for covid-19 having, you know, coughed or spluttered, isolated in the school and the special designated room goes home, gets a test and it comes back positive. What happens, first of all, in that school?
Well, indeed. And to be fair, I would thank you for actually outlining some of the protocols that exist in the school because the protocol in the school is very clear. And if a child is unwell in school, as you have outlined, the child is taken to the and the isolation area. A parent guardian is called and the GP makes the decision in terms of a test. And as you have now suggested, we say the test comes back positive.
As a consequence of that, then public health takes over and public has and looks at the school, comes to the school, and they make the adjudication on what happens next in terms of whether it's a small class group, whether it's a peer group or whatever decision needs to be taken. And I think it is very important that people would realize that that adjudication is not at all made by the Department of Education, nor indeed by the principal and school management on the ground.
It is a public health matter at that stage, and that applies in every other workplace and in every other environment in terms of and, you know, an issue of an individual testing positive will be the exact same.
An issue to review with whether they have briefed you from public health, from the Department of Health and some sort of rules and regulations and kind of protocols you can lay down. I mean, what happens to the teacher and the class of the person who is specifically.
So what happens to the teacher? Yeah, well, could I could I just say in the first instance, yes, indeed.
There has been an intense engagement and very high level engagement between the Department of Health and the U.S. and the Department of Education. Indeed, just the day before yesterday. And we had a very high level engagement with the Minister for Health and his officials. And we also had the support of the city's officials and public health. And and I was also present and officials from my department and we did work through what would be required and what would happen. And there's a very clear protocol from public health.
But could I say to you, it it depends on the situation in the school at a given time. So in terms of the teacher, the testing and tracing comes into play at public health, comes in, makes the adjudication as to how long the student is in a particular environment and who the student mixed with. And depending on all of that information available to public health, then they make the decision as regards what happens next. They are best placed.
They have the expert. Hang on. Hang on a second.
That's fine. And, you know, you phone public health and they get someone. There may be reasonably quickly, but maybe not so quickly. I'm just wondering what the principal of the school has to do at that moment. You've got someone who has been coughing and spluttering, is isolated Santorum. And even while you're waiting for the test results, does the teacher go home?
Do you send all the other kids home? I mean, these are decisions that principals are going to have to make.
And and they're very clear principals are very clear in the guidelines that that they would have received that until a diagnosis has been made in relation to the case, whether it's a student or indeed a teacher, until the adjudication is made and until public health have and, you know, made are aware of that adjudication, it is then and only then that matters be taken in the school. It would be impossible for a principal to make any decision without the verification of the test.
And once the test is verified, then public health takes over. But what about the precautionary principle?
I mean, this is not pie in the sky stuff. I'm not kind of creating as some sort of a rare and aberrant situation. I'm saying you've got someone in the class who's coughing, who may have covid-19 that person.
But if someone who is asymptomatic.
No, now bear with me for a moment. Yes, indeed. That person may have got the condition from someone who's asymptomatic. Right. And that person who's asymptomatic, who's given it to student number one, is still going to be given a disused number, three, four or five, six and seven, and indeed, possibly even the teacher, while everyone's making up their mind what to do.
Surely there should be precautionary protocols for the principal to know what to do on the day at the moment.
Well, you have just in what you have outlined there, you have the student may have covid-19, the student may be coughing or spluttering or whatever the case might be. Now, could I say in the first instance, in terms of the child who is suffering and spluttering best practice advice, and it's they are very, very clear in the school as to what that is and how good respiratory etiquette and all of that. So there will be no child, nor indeed staff member at any stage coughing and spluttering.
The environment and all of that, but again, just to come back to your point about the child, may or may not. We cannot live in a world of May and may not. The child will either be confirmed as being diagnosed with covid-19 or not if they are confirmed. And that would be the same anywhere where there was a member of staff or in any work environment. Once it's a confirmed case, then public health takes over and and, you know, and that's advisable.
And we're also very aware and indeed doctors have pointed this out, children will get sick. It is the nature of children to get sick. It may have nothing to do with covid-19. So, you know, we are adopting the principle that we are told to adopt that all precautionary measures would be taken in school in terms of best education, best practice in schools. We are doing that rigorously. We have put funding in place in terms of, you know, ensuring sanitizer, a sanitizer and cleaning methods, all of that.
And when there is a confirmed diagnosis, then the correct action will also be taken.
It is very clear to my listeners are telling me, in my absence of hearing you, that you weren't really answering the questions that they really want to know. What should a principal do in the event of someone being suspected of covid-19? What do they do at that moment when they make a decision in the classroom to isolate somebody? What then?
And it is very clear at that point the principal makes contact with the parent or guardian parent. The student, as you're aware, as you've already said, is now in the isolation area and contact is made with the parent or guardian. The child is collected and then the GP, in consultation with the parent or guardian, makes the decision as to whether it should be and it should necessitate a test or not. And again, remember, and this is what we have to be very clear about, children, by their nature, will take ill.
It may have something to do with covid-19. It may not at all. It may have nothing to do with it. So the GP will adjudicate that. And if a test is required, a test will take place. And then if it is a positive diagnosis, public health will take over in the school as regards what to do next. And until there is an adjudication that it is a positive test and a school will continue because as I've said, it may or may not be.
And indeed, in your questioning, in your earlier questioning and your language, you did say it may be at 19, it may well not be. And the precautionary principle already exists in the school in terms of care of our our young people and indeed our school staff in terms of best practice etiquette, in terms of, you know, you had referenced earlier, I think, you know, students coughing and spluttering into the air. That will never happen in schools in terms of children are well advised as indeed to the staff community about etiquette coughing into their and into their elbow and washing hand hand sanitizer and all of that and additional resources, significant additional resources are being put into the schools in terms of making all those facilities available and and, you know, extra cleaning and so on and so forth.
So we are doing in the schools what we are advised to do by public health. And that's that's exactly the measures that are in place currently.
We see, for example, when meat factories have a problem, that everyone is tested. That's the way it is.
So and that adjudication yet again to say to you, Patrick, but I would not for one minute expect any member of the staff of the school community to have the medical expertise. So the adjudication as regards who is tested when they are tested is a public health matter. And it must be a public health matter. It is a medical matter at that stage. And indeed, that would be similar in in any other environment. Public health makes the decision as regards who is tested and when.
So a child goes home and, you know, parents are asking us what happens to us, you know, we're at work, do we go into work even though we have a child who's suspected of having covid-19, do we self isolate for so many days until such time as it's clear whether or not the child has covid-19?
I mean. Well, what people are looking for is clarity, clarity, clarity. I think they'll find it hard. I've no doubt they find it hard. Like all the other regulations, they find it hard, but they prefer to know them than be guessing.
And and I absolutely appreciate and understand that. And I do appreciate as well how anxious this is. And in this covid world in which we live. But I, I am very, very clear to you that the protocol is when there is a confirmed case we cannot live in, the possibility are in the door, may or may not. We we are proceeding on and the basis of a confirmed case within our schools. And that's how our schools will operate.
It's how it's operating everywhere else as well. So schools are no different. Obviously, parents are encouraged at home to take all the necessary precautions. And again, just to reiterate, in terms of schools, there is and very clear and advice been given by all the medical experts. And I have heard them, whether it's our acting CMO or whether it's Professor Philip Nolan and many other schools by their nature, are very, very safe environments. And what we're asking for is that people in wider community and in the homes and wider community, we do all that is necessary to continue to ensure that schools are safe.
But there is no difficulty in realising what is happening in the schools. There's a clear protocol when the child takes ill. The isolation units the parent called the test are judged by the GP, whether it's necessary or not. And then if it's a positive case, all the other and and I suppose aspects fall into place controlled by public health. That is right. And that is proper treatment.
Now, you have an awful lot of schools reopening. So the question about public health is how quickly can they respond yourself? Pointed out that, you know, coughs and colds are quite the norm in schools. We may have less of them thanks to masks. Certainly in secondary schools, we may have less of them, but we still will have them.
The public health people could be very, very busy indeed trying to respond in in due time, in in quick time to requests from schools all over the country. Yes, I appreciate that.
And it is for that reason that we have an ongoing engagement with, as I said, the Department of Health, with Public Health, with the HSC, and because we recognise that correctly. So from our point of view, we have asked that and priority would be given to our schools and to our students and to our school community in terms of a confirmed case, and that, you know, the priority that is given in other jurisdictions is also given to schools.
That's very important. But I do appreciate and there is a huge burden being placed on public health. But, you know, that's the extraordinary circumstance in which we find ourselves. But I'm very confident from the engagements that I have had, that's where priority is needed in our schools. That priority will absolutely be given the opportunity given.
Now, we've heard from principals of schools and from teachers saying we'll have 30 kids in the classroom. We don't have adequate ventilation. We might have the odd window we can open. Social distancing is impossible. And then there are other schools.
We heard from one this morning. Henry McKeon was out in Whitehall at a national school there for boys. And they've plenty of space and they're managing very well.
What do you say to those teachers who feel they're putting themselves in harm's way by being in a crowded classroom with no social distancing being possible? Well, in the first instance, I must and I do want to take the opportunity to acknowledge just the terrific work that has been ongoing by schools, the length and breadth of the country to to put in place the necessary measures that are required for the reopening of our schools. There's just been phenomenal engagement and phenomenal goodwill from the schools.
And indeed, as you have said, issues are much, much more easily resolved in some schools than in others. And and again, bearing in mind and you reference to says we have 4000 schools, one million students, one hundred thousand teachers, some schools will not have the difficulties that other schools will have. But we are very clear in what we are saying that and social distancing is required in primary schools. I must acknowledge the primary schools are different to the second level and in the earlier years in primary school and the public has guidance is that and social distancing and is is there where practicable and in the very smaller classes with the younger students in junior instance and senior instance, in that it is not in the nature of the children, I suppose, to be able to maintain that social distancing.
And we acknowledge that. So therefore, in primary school, children are operating in class and within that they're operating in pods and social distancing will be and will be applied. And where that is possible, I appreciate where you're talking about the larger classes, but again, that's where the classes will operate as bobbles and pods within that. And and you know, where there is particular and individual difficulty. There has been excellent engagement between and the Department of Education and the schools in terms of, you know, we have a dedicated helplines for schools where there might well be issues.
And there has been over three and a half thousand calls there. We've received five and a half thousand emails in terms of different issues that are arriving in the schools and there will be different issues. No. Two schools are the same, but on a case by case, one to one basis, we are working through those issues at schools.
People really expect you, though, to have answers.
I mean, one texture, please. Will the minister explain what happens to the family if our child is sent home due to a positive test of one of her classmates? They want to know, you know, Emma well again, and Emma says, well, Sarah tested positive and so I've been sent home because of public health, made that decision, told the principal to send us all home. What do the parents of that child do? Do they go to work the next morning?
Well, again, public health will advise the school community and the school families in that instance. But and I am not a medical expert here, but there is a question, and I would just raise this. There is a question of being a contact and then there's the question of being a contact of a contact. And so the adjudication in terms of what happens within the family unit will be made and will be made by public health. And I think that's right and proper that I I wouldn't expect anybody who doesn't have a medical background and medical experience to to make sure to be briefed.
I mean, look, there are ministers in government. Stephen Donnelly, your colleague, he's not a doctor.
He's been briefed, though, by his civil servants to be able to answer questions on medical matters.
And you as minister for education, given that covid-19 is part of what you're going to have to cope with, you'd expect that you'd be briefed adequately by public health. So you can answer these questions.
And indeed, for public health, they're telling us, is that it is not possible to make a blanket adjudication on any circumstance. And I have to respect that. What they are saying to us is that they will have to take into account the individual situation in an individual school and make an individual adjudication. And that will be that will include such measures as, for example, how much contact and indeed for how long did the student who is diagnosed as as positive and for how long did he have contact with any member of the school community?
And if it was lesser or greater, a determination, a different determination will be made. And I accept that. I accept that, you know, individual situations will will demand individual responses. And that's that's the exact same protocol that is operating in every other environment. And it will operate in public health. So it will operate in the school environment. It is not possible to make a blanket adjudication. I think you would accept that every situation will have its own and unique circumstances.
You've seen those diagnostic things that you ask the first question. And if the answer is a, you go across the way to maybe PE, if the answer is B, you go across the way to Q, if the answer is C, you go across the way to R and then depending on the speaker, you if the answer to Q is something you go to Z, it's that kind of help for a principal to be able to work out what is the best thing I can do right now.
And I'm wondering if the department has actually put those kind of checklists, if you like, of factors also for principals.
They can actually make the right decision in the moment. I mean, it may turn out to be they didn't need to be so extreme. They didn't need to shut everything down. Or perhaps it'll be that maybe they should have shut everything down. And only time will reiterate.
And I think there is a difficulty here. I will reiterate once again, no student, sorry, no teacher, no principal, no member of the school community will make the decision as regards shutting down. Absolutely not. That's a determination of public health. We will not deviate from the practice that is operating in every other workplace. No principal would be burdened with making that decision because the principal will not have the personal medical experience nor expertise. So therefore the decision will be made by public health on the basis of their best practice on the basis of their experience.
So we are very clear when an issue arises that is a matter of public health, public health, religion, education upon us, and to do otherwise would not be acceptable within the Department of Education. People are not reassured, I have to say, no comfort for parents in your answers that they are depending on a public health official at some point with some, you know, delay or otherwise to be able to make a decision that is all about the health of people and indeed, in schools, if you have a child is isolated.
Yeah. Would you just allow the poor child is isolated, for example, his health.
But it is a matter of health. This is what you know. And you have made that point. You said very clearly it is a matter of health. It is right and proper that an adjudication and health would be made by health experts. I think that's only fair. I think that's only proper. And I think that's correct. And it's absolute it would not be right or proper for an adjudication and has to be made by an education professional. That's you know, that.
You know why why would we differentiate and practice that's taking place in all of the work environments and ask and the Department of Education are on the ground, the principal on the ground, to make a health adjudication when it is a health matter. So there's parity in relation. I know, but very Kirkos.
OK, but if you're driving a car and you hear a very bad knocking sound of the engine, the first you did you make a decision to stop the car. You don't go on your mobile phone and ring a mechanic before you stop the car. You stop the car. And that's what principals and teachers want help with. You know, at what point do we stop the car? At what point do we tell people, OK, take the rest of the day off because we're worried about this kind of thing?
That's that's all I'm saying. It's not that we're not asking the principal to diagnose or the class teacher to diagnose.
And you know what happens if there is a bit of a delay in getting a public health expert to adjudicate on? Teachers are saying, I'm not happy being here. You know, that child looked very sick in my class.
I'm not happy carrying on for the rest of the day. And I look, the anxiousness that is around this, but again, you have said when you hear the knock with the engine or whatever, when you get the first indication, when the first indication arises in the school, the first thing that the principal will do will be obviously to take the child is taken to the isolation area. And the first thing the principal will do thereafter is to make contact with the parents and guardians.
Then after that, the GP makes the decision, as I've already said, and then the test. If it is a positive test, public health will be immediately there. It is right and proper that the decisions in relation to public health within the school environment would be made by public health. There is no ambiguity made that point.
Look, I respect I'm not going to get anywhere further on this because your bottom line is public health. But the delay time at the moment on tests. So the GP organizes the test if possible. It happens on the same day and we're waiting for, what, two point two days, whatever the current is. So what happens in the school during that two point two days?
Well, the school will continue until there is an adjudication. But could I just say on that point, we have asked that and priority would be given in the school environments and, you know, students, staff, whomever it is that requires the test. And we have you know, we are pursuing that with the department, ensuring that we would have it as quickly and as speedily as possible.
Just a couple of things about isolation. Some schools have quite adequate accommodation for isolation. And there's a difficulty if two people in different classes, for example, are coughing and the suspicion of coverage, you have to isolate them separately, because if one has and one hasn't, you don't with them coughing at each other and the uninfected person getting covid. So obviously adequate accommodation and, you know, more than one room should ideally be provided or at least have the facility to convert an office or whatever temporarily into an isolation.
But a garden shed in a school outside Athlone. Not great. Absolutely, and I would accept that and I will come to that in the main, could I just say that I have also seen on the ground absolutely best practice and superb examples of isolation spaces. And could I actually make that clarification? It is not necessarily required that it would be a room. It is. And an isolation space and there would need to be sufficient space. Indeed, I visited a school yesterday and where I saw that they actually had two isolation spaces available and know the case that you reference.
No, that's not best practice. And that's you know, I don't accept for one minute that that would be advisable. And indeed, you know, could I say that engagement between my department and that school and, you know, is ongoing.
But I think that looks like to me anyway, looking at it, I don't know how the child would feel, but that looks like punishment. You know, a garden shed outside in isolation. It reminds me, years ago when I was in a convent school at the age of five or whatever, the nun used to put us under the stairs as a punishment. So something similar, putting them in the bloodshed as a punishment. You know, it doesn't feel right to me.
Yes. Well, Pat and I were not in any shape or form disagree with you. That does not in any shape or form and appear to me as being an example of best practice and antechinus. And as I say, my department will and are engaging with the school in relation to issues that have been raised there. But equally so I could point you that there are very, very many schools. And again, bearing in mind that we have 4000 schools where there are superb examples.
And I believe that the exception should not be a reflection of what is happening in the vast, vast majority of the 4000 schools throughout the country.
Basically, for all the questions which I've been asking you, I really should be turning my attention to someone from the public health team who will then outline the protocols for me, how they will do their work, for instance, what the response time will be, how long a test of a school child is going to take, and what happens to the parents of a school child whose child is in the class where there's been a case of covid. It's it's all that sort of stuff.
I need to go to public health. Is that that's the bottom line?
Well, to be fair, if it was a matter to do with education and, you know, I would expect the experts in education to answer it. But if it's a matter to do with health and if it is what has been happening throughout the entire country, I think, you know, public health have been conferred with the responsibility of adjudicating situations in different work environments and in different, you know, environments in general. And I do not see why they should be expected to deviate from that practice in terms of what happens in education.
That's the agreed protocol that the agreed practice. And that's the one that we're following.
Some of the comments covid outbreaks are managed by public health doctors, not public health officials. I would appreciate if Pat would use the right term, happy to correct that. Is that the case, Minister, that there will be a doctor involved in every decision about a school?
Because I would have thought that the you know, they could brief people in these protocols because trying to find a doctor for every school that has this issue, a public health doctor at short notice, could be challenging.
Well, I would imagine that that public has to make the adjudication with the expertise that's available to them and the expertise does include obviously the medical doctors and the officials that are working with them. So it will be the best medical adjudication that needs to be made in terms of our schools in a similar way that had to be made elsewhere.
There's a question that came in to me much earlier when we mentioned that you'd be coming on. And it's an interesting question and it's about CEO and the CEO offers. And our listener was wondering whether or not it would be possible, given that these are predictive grades. So, you know, they're already locked in and whatever system is used, the bell curve or whatever finally emerges. Could the CEO not get these early enough to make the CEO offers available on the same day as the predictive grades?
It would take a lot of the stress out of the whole system. And well, just as for Kharazi to say, as you pass that, the timeline as agreed at the time line that is operating and the calculated grades will be available on the 7th of September and the intervening time is required by see you then. And they would make their efforts on the 11th, which is on the Friday. So we're going from a Monday to a Friday. And that's the timeline that is agreed.
And it be the best timeline in the optimum amount of time that is required to to ensure that the two can operate hand in hand.
And I would appreciate, as outlined, you know, that, you know, with the best will in the world, you know, people would like, you know, and everything to be quicker and everything to be done, you know, speedily as possible. It is being done as speedily as possible, but it is being done with the checks and balances that are necessary to ensure that that that it should run as it should run. So and the additional time that is required is to ensure that that happens as it should happen.
OK, a few brief things. Children with special needs, parents extremely anxious about sending their children back to school essentials work very closely with those children. But in some cases, you, Vanessa and A who is shared with a number of students and you know, the risk of cross infection being there. How can you reassure those parents?
Well, again, just to acknowledge that across all of our schools, including and schools and the education for children with additional needs, there has been phenomenal work put in place and indeed, you know, phenomenal measures in terms of health and safety in those schools. And I've already outlined them. And in terms of, you know, hand sanitizer, cleaning, extra cleaning or all the additional measures that are required. And certainly our standards also will have the appropriate PPE.
And I do I do appreciate that, you know, school is to run as normal as we would run school traditionally in the present context, in context and in the present environment. So in relation to the Athanasius Affinis will move and between one part and the other. But the Fanis will have the appropriate and PPE and and all the necessary extra precautions that need to be taken and will be taken. And all the measures that need to be applied within schools that are dealing with children with additional needs are being taken in those schools.
And the question of the tipping point that Minister Stephen Dunlea referred to, if we were heading for another lockdown, would there be an exception made for schools, given how long the kids have been out of school?
Well, I suppose, again, just to acknowledge we would be guided at all times by the guidance that we received from an officer and in relation to just to give you a concrete example in Kildare. And even though Kadare remains in lockdown, the schools are operating that with the advice of nefesh. And and again, the Department of Education did not act unilaterally there. We were guided by an effort and it was their best advice that schools would continue in in Kildare.
And I would be hopeful that we would be in a position to to manage that and should another situation arise in another county or whatever the case might be. But the determination on that absolutely will be by effort. But again, just to say, it is absolutely and in the best interests of all of our children who are now going back to school and indeed our young adults that they return to school. And schools have been closed since the 12th of March.
It is so much better. And all our experts would say this. It is so much better for our students that the opportunity to re-engage with schools from an educational point of view of history, but also from their socialization and for their wellbeing. And I think we've made a very good start yesterday, again today. And we will see even more schools open up over the next number of days. And I hope to be able to say that that will continue and over the next number of months.
And let us hope that all the science that's telling us that younger children particularly don't get over to any great extent and are not vectors for its spread. Let's hope that is borne out by the Irish experience. Minister. Thank you very much for joining us. That's the Minister for Education and Fiona fortuity for Kerry and Norma Foley. Norma Foley, thank you very much.