For many families with members who are vulnerable to Covid-19, remote learning during school closures has meant online tuition and a chance for their children to engage with their class.
Now, with students due to return to classrooms in the coming weeks, many are worried about these online classes finishing up.
Under Department of Education guidelines, children who are at “very high risk” can be offered remote learning. Individual schools are responsible for how this is provided and as such, there is no one uniform approach.
Leaving Cert student Gypsy Robinson has been cocooning since last March when Covid-19 first emerged in Ireland. She loves animals and would like to become a vet nurse after she finishes school.
Her mother Hazel said her daughter has found the last year in isolation very difficult. Gypsy has cystic fibrosis and had missed out on a lot of school even before Covid-19 as a result of her illness.
She recently started on a new drug which has helped “transform her life”, said Hazel.
“She’s been given a new lease of life, imagine you were given that miracle? She wants to grab her chance at life and give it all she has.”
While schools were operating remotely, Gypsy could attend lessons online with her classmates. Since last year, she has been teaching herself most of the Leaving Cert curriculum bar 10 hours of home tuition she recently qualified for.
Now, with Leaving Cert students back in classrooms, she can’t access the same level of online learning anymore.
“Don’t get me wrong, her school is absolutely fantastic but they are up against it as well because there isn’t any real direction as to what to do.
There needs to be a national online remote learning programme in place for vulnerable students, according to Hazel. There are a number of high-risk teachers who have not returned to classrooms, she added.
“We’re living in the day and age of high tech, which has been so important during this time. Why can’t they put something in place online to make sure nobody gets left behind in terms of their education?”
In a personal piece, Gypsy wrote about how her illness has affected her life in school. She said: “I have been left to fight for my education all by myself.
“I will have to do longer courses to bring me close to where I want to be in life, which because of my illness I might not have those extra years to spare.”
Tracy McGinnis, a single-parent family carer living in Wexford, has two sons, Brendan, who is in the very high-risk category, and Declan.
Tracy is also high-risk. Declan, a first-year secondary school student, has been learning at home since the first term in school.
Under department guidelines, only children who are themselves at “very high risk” can be offered remote learning, and not if they have family members with underlying conditions.
“I would have to put him on a 20-minute bus ride each way, at full capacity, with young adults into a school of 800 kids sitting a metre or less apart,” Ms McGinnis said.
“I could not take that risk. He needs to stay home to protect me, his only parent, and his brother, his only sibling until we are protected with the vaccine.
First-year second-level students are due to return to classrooms on April 12.
“I will have to fight for what amounts to about 50 school days until the term ends.”
The Department of Education has taken a very “black-and-white” approach to offer remote learning to students with vulnerable family members, she added. There could have been a national network of online classes set up.
“It would have been quite easy. I even heard comments at the beginning where people said it wouldn’t be fair on the students who didn’t have the technology.
“Rather than provide that technology to those who didn’t have it, the students who did have the technology didn’t get the opportunity. So in order to be fair to everybody, everybody loses?”
Ms McGinnis is worried that Declan will be asked to repeat the year.
“It will crush him.”