Back to School Survey highlights the impact of school closures and suggests anxious weeks ahead

Greg Mulhall

Reporter:

Greg Mulhall

Email:

greg.mulhall@iconicnews.ie

Back to School Survey highlights the impact of school closures and suggests anxious weeks ahead

Worry and lack of clarity about children going back to school during the Covid-19 pandemic have become parents’ top concern in this year’s Barnardos annual Back to School Survey.

The survey also highlighted that the old worries of cost haven’t gone away. A tandem survey of children and young people found that while children are eager to see their friends and get back to learning in a school setting, many are worried about contracting Covid-19 or passing it to a loved one. 

This year’s Parents Survey found that the vast majority of parents think it is important for their children to return to school, however 50% (primary) and 53% (secondary) are worried; with 16% (primary) and 21% (secondary) actually saying they would prefer if their child was not returning to school to reduce their risk of contracting Covid-19.

The survey revealed that parents feel it is important their children return to school for emotional and social development (95% primary, 92% secondary); mental health (93% primary, 91% secondary) and interestingly, while still high, parents placed less emphasis on learning and development (89% primary, 86% secondary).

The majority of parents felt they had insufficient information about their child’s return to school and what the day would look like (73% primary, 65% secondary), while the majority of parents found balancing work and home-schooling difficult. A large proportion of parents (44% of primary school and 48% of secondary school parents) found managing technology for online learning difficult. Around a quarter (23%) of both primary and secondary school parents said they didn’t have ready access to the required technology for their child to learn remotely.  

I am excited to see my friends but I live with my nana and I am worried about getting the virus and giving it to her. The news said we might have to stick with 3 people this makes me sad and makes me feel really worried as I have girls in my class that bully me. I feel worried what if I get put with one what do I do?” - (Primary School Girl, Barnardos Children and Young People’s Back to School Survey 2020) 

Suzanne Connolly, Barnardos CEO, said: “This year we changed our survey to reflect the difficult circumstances parents and school pupils find themselves in. As well as asking parents about the cost of sending their child to school, we were keen to find out how parents and children and young people felt about school closures, home-schooling and returning to school during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“Our findings are clear; of the 1765 parent respondents, the vast majority believe strongly in the emotional and social benefit of children being in school but are worried about the effect school closures have had on their children. Over 90% of parents believe it is important for their children to return to school for their emotional and social development, and mental health wellbeing.  

“They are also concerned of further impacts of social distancing, or lack thereof, in schools, and have expressed anxieties around Covid-19. The survey, which was conducted earlier in July, found parents were united in their frustration with the lack of clarity or information coming from Government.”

“We are now calling on the government to outline how they are going to ensure the implementation of this plan in all schools and offer the required supports to roll out this plan.  

While costs have largely remained static since last year, parents report the weight of the costs is still a lot to bear, too much for some. Two in five primary school parents and half of secondary school parents say they have to cut back, avoid paying other bills or borrow money to pay for their child’s education. 

“The cost is a very heavy burden as only husband is working and I am not receiving any benefits as I am unable to work for mental health reasons… There is no money for activities to do in the summer. We do without a lot to send them to school. We do feel like the working poor.” - (Secondary School Parents, Barnardos Parents’ Back to School Survey 2020) 

While half of parents felt that they were sent the right amount of work by their schools, over a quarter (25% primary, 31% secondary), felt they did not receive enough support from their child’s school.  55% of primary school parents and 53% of secondary school parents said they incurred additional costs this year due to their child not being in school from March to June 

The basic cost of sending a child to school in 2020, while slightly decreasing for parents of primary school children, remains substantial - the average cost of the basics needed for a senior infants pupil is €330; a fourth class pupil is €365 and a first year pupil is €735.

A significant proportion of parents say they are either cutting back on other costs, not paying bills, or are taking loans to cover their back to school costs (41% primary, 50% secondary). Of those that had to borrow, 31% took a loan from a credit union or bank, 29% used credit cards, 27% borrowed from family or friends, and most worryingly, 13% borrowed from a money lender. 

“Children haven’t been heard throughout this crisis, so we felt it was important to give them a voice and let them have their say alongside their parents. 255 primary and secondary school pupils responded to our survey. Some told us they enjoyed aspects of being at home during restrictions earlier this year, but many found learning from home a challenge. Many more had mixed feelings, both about being at home during school closures and going back to school,” continued Suzanne Connolly.

Ms Connolly concluded, “It is welcome that the Government’s plan to reopen schools include comprehensive measures to support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing; but it is imperative these plans are implemented swiftly.” 

The Children and Young People’s Survey found:  

Two out of five children said they feel positively about returning to school; but one in five feel negatively. Many children and young people have mixed feelings.    

Three quarters of respondents (74%) also said they are looking forward to seeing their teachers, but most children and young people (70%) are not looking forward to homework.   

Three out of five children and young people (60%) said they are worried about Covid-19 when they think of returning to school.   

There was an even 50:50 split between those who loved having a parent as a teacher and those who did not. On learning beside siblings most children and young people felt more negatively, with 65% saying they did not enjoy trying to learn with a brother or sister.   

27% of children told us they did not have enough time on a computer, tablet or phone to do their work 

Barnardos’ Recommendations – Covid- 19  

Provide clear implementation guidelines and timelines to schools to accompany the Roadmap for Reopening Schools and the Wellbeing Guidance document to ensure a coherent response across the school system and give clarity to parents.  

Provide principals and teachers with access to trauma informed Continuing Professional Development (CPD), wellbeing training and other resources to enable school staff to help children cope with the transition back to school; to respond appropriately to the on-going impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health and wellbeing; and to manage an increase in child protection and welfare referrals arising when schools reopen.  

Ensure sufficient resources and planning are in place for the Tusla Education Support Service (TESS) to respond quickly and thoroughly to the additional needs Covid-19 has caused across all three of its services – the Educational Welfare Service, the Home School Liaison Scheme and the School Completion Programme.   

Provide additional learning supports, such as individual and small group tutoring, for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to bridge the educational inequality divides which may have emerged during school closures.  

Recognise the increased burden Covid-19 has placed on vulnerable children in families where additional needs were already present before the pandemic by rolling out the Programme for Government commitment to increase provision of family support services.  

Barnardos’ Recommendations – School Costs: 

Uphold a child’s constitutional right to free primary education by committing in Budget 2021 to invest an extra €103.2 million annually to reduce the cost of books, voluntary contributions, classroom resources and transport for parents. This can be phased over the lifetime of the Government, beginning with expansion of the free school book programme in the 2021/2022 school year.   

Commit to investing €126.9m annually to make secondary education free for all children once free primary education has been achieved.  

Ensure school’s Board of Managements’ adherence to the Department of Education circular re school uniform policy to take tangible measures to reduce the cost for parents.   

Equalise the threshold for Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance for one and two parent families and restore the amount paid to 2010 levels.   

Fully implement the recommendations from the recent report of Joint Committee on Education and Skills in relation to school costs.   

To address the digital divide among school pupils at both primary and secondary levels, develop a grant scheme similar to that available in third level to assist parents to pay for the digital hardware and software required for their child’s education.