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State U-turn Plan to force creches to refund parents if children can’t attend as Leaving Certs to study remotely

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Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman

The Government is exploring ways to force childcare providers to repay parents who are charged fees for services that can’t be used due to Covid-19 restrictions.

There is concern among parents that creches will still charge fees for January so that their child’s place can be maintained.

The average fee nationally was put at €736-a-month in one study in 2019 with parents in Dublin forking out an average of €1,000-a-month for one child.

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said he is asking that childcare providers refund parents whose children can’t be cared for under the current restrictions.

The Government hopes that creches will do this voluntarily.

But the Department of Children confirmed last night that ways to enforce the payment of refunds are also being explored, and said that many childcare providers are already offering refunds.

But it added: “The relationship between a service and parent is a private one based on a contract.

"The Department is examining whether there are mechanisms whereby it can mandate services to repay fees.”

On Wednesday Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked about childcare providers seeking payments for January to maintain a child’s place and whether they should be allowed to do this.

Mr Martin said: “The minister will be engaging with the childcare providers and with the sector to iron out these particular issues.”

Last night Mr O’Gorman told the Irish Independent: “In light of the extensive financial support the State is providing to the childcare sector I am asking that providers would refund or credit those parents who are not essential workers and can’t take up childcare for the next three weeks.”

Meanwhile, Leaving Cert students will study remotely until the end of January after the Government performed a major U-turn on its decision to proceed with classes in schools three days a week.

The move follows widespread opposition from teachers, parents, pupils and special needs assistants due to “grave concerns” over health and safety amid the worsening Covid-19 situation.

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Plans to reopen special schools next week are also to be cancelled.

“Unfortunately I am left with no alternative but to pause the limited reopening on Monday to allow further engagement with all education stakeholders,” Education Minister Norma Foley said in a statement last night.

The Labour Party’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó’ Ríordáin said the Government has “averted a disaster”.

Attention will now turn to the exams as students continue to voice their concerns about sitting the traditional Leaving Cert in the summer.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan last night appeared to be taken by surprise by the Government’s U-turn.

He was asked about the decision at the end of an hour-long briefing after earlier distancing himself from the original proposal to bring Leaving Cert pupils back.

Dr Holohan said he accepted the Government had to take into account a broader view in its decision making around the issue.

The decision to switch to remote learning follows one of the country’s main teaching unions telling members to stay at home from school on Monday.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) called on its members to teach remotely and defy the Government’s plan to allow classes go ahead for Leaving Cert and special needs students following a meeting with public health and education officials.

ASTI president Ann Piggott said: “The ASTI has repeatedly sought sufficient assurances that schools are safe for students and teachers at this time, in the context of the new variant of Covid-19 circulating in the community and the alarmingly high numbers. Unfortunately, the assurances we sought have not been forthcoming.”

More than 700 principals and deputy principals also took part in an online meeting of the Joint Managerial Board yesterday, which represents over half of second-level schools.

Sources who took part in the meeting described the mood as “panic stricken” and “angry”: “The general feeling was that schools won’t open in the way the Government is saying. Nobody said they would start teaching in schools on Monday.

"The logistical challenge of doing mixed learning is too much.”

Dr Holohan had advised the Government that the full reopening of schools would “constitute a very significant additional risk” as the country battles with an unprecedented level of Covid-19 transmission in the community.

In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, dated January 5, he noted data received by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) shows schools are a “safe environment”.

But given the current epidemiological situation, “significant levels of mobility and linked activity” generated by the reopening of schools would pose too risky.

Rachel O’Connor, principal of Ramsgrange Community School in New Ross, Co Wexford, told the Irish Independent she was “extremely anxious” about students returning after the area was ravaged by an outbreak over the Christmas period.

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