Tipperary's Cara Darmody with her autistic brothers
A young Tipperary girl plans to combine classroom education with homeschooling in order to reduce the risk of her vulnerable brothers contracting Covid-19.
The closing of schools as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic was initially a struggle for the Darmody family from Ardfinnan.
Noelle and Mark have three children: Neil (7) and John (3), who have autism, and Cara (9).
Homeschooled by Mark during the lockdown, Cara progressed magnificently and now wishes to combine learning at home with classroom education going forward. She has penned a letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, which calls for legislation to allow this combined method of learning to become the norm.
“Cara is the only child in her class with siblings like her brothers and it was very hard on her being at home full-time during the lockdown at first,” Noelle says.
“Either Mark or I always have to be with the boys, so we decided that Mark would be Cara’s teacher. We structured the day similar to the school timetable, and Cara really applied herself and ran ahead of the school curriculum. She loves maths and even managed to finish the sixth class curriculum, and her interest in history, geography and politics has really grown,” Noelle says.
'Terrified of Covid-19'
With schools reopening, Noelle says the family is “terrified” of Covid-19 and the potential impact it could have if it gets into the Darmody home. She says Neil and John are enrolled at Scoil Chormaic in Cashel, where classroom numbers are smaller and it’s easier to contact trace. On the other hand, she says Cara is heading into fourth class at Ardfinnan National School with up to 30 other pupils.
“I would have been horrified if someone had suggested homeschooling to me pre-Covid. It would be a lot easier to have Cara in the classroom full-time,” Noelle admits.
“If Neil needs anything from the hospital, it is an absolute nightmare and it has to be pre-scheduled with a team of doctors. We cannot treat him, and if he gets Covid-19 there’s no guarantee that he would come through it. Cara can’t have play dates or go to birthday parties at the moment, but she understands the situation and has been fantastic about it.
“There’s normally a lot of noise in our house and there’s not always a lot of time to sit down together and go through things. But during the lockdown, she really got to spend quality time with her dad as they were learning together. She loves school and has loads of friends, but she doesn’t want to go back five days a week,” Noelle explains.
'No provision to do both'
A retired garda turned Cara’s teacher during lockdown, Mark has his own consultancy company which provides legal training courses to school staff members on how to manage aggression and violence. Mark, who has visited hundreds of schools through work, says the law in Ireland at present allows for either homeschooling full-time or classroom education full-time.
According to a Department of Education and Skills spokesperson, the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 provides for a child to be educated in a recognised school or alternatively if a parent chooses to educate, or have educated, his or her child in a place other than a recognised school. If the parent chooses an option for their child other than attending a recognised school, then the parent is obliged to apply to Tusla’s Alternative Education Assessment and Registration Service to have the child concerned registered as outlined under Section 14 of the Act.
“Section 14 of the Act provides a mechanism for parents to apply for the child to be homeschooled, but we do not want to do that,” Mark says.
“There is no provision to do both. The law was written in a different time, before coronavirus, and is certainly not suitable for what may be to come in the future,” Mark says.
“In the practical world, when a child is absent for more than 20 days, a principal is legally obliged to inform the education welfare officer, who has the power to investigate, meet the family, issue a school attendance notice if the child’s attendance doesn’t improve and ultimately has the power to issue a summons to appear in court to get a judge to direct the child’s attendance,” Mark explains.
The family plan to send Cara to Ardfinnan National School two days a week and homeschool her on the other days. Mark says this will ensure Cara continues to progress at her current rate, while reducing the risk of Covid-19 getting into the Darmody home.
“The principal has accepted our case, but the problem is that Cara will be marked absent on the days she is missing. At the end of the year, her report will say she was absent for 100 days, which is technically correct but isn’t a true reflection of what is going on with her education. Both the education welfare officer and the principal have said that our request is unprecedented. They can only work with the law that is there,” Mark adds.
Noelle says the future is very uncertain, calling on the Government to create a blueprint for combining classroom education with homeschooling. “There are a lot of families in the same boat as us. Parents should be allowed to do both, especially in the new coronavirus world when we don’t know what will happen in the future. We are only one case away from the school shutting again,” Noelle adds.
The Department spokesperson says guidance documents were published on how to support continuity in learning during the school closures associated with Covid-19. “Furthermore, specific guidance has been published in respect of high risk children who cannot attend school in person, outlining how schools can best support these students. Where a family or parents have specific concerns regarding the health of a student or a member of their household, they should discuss this with their child’s school and their medical team,” the spokesperson adds.
'Change the law'
Championing the cause for combined learning, Cara told the Taoiseach in her letter: “I have done really well at homeschooling over the last six months. I call it Daddy School and I love it very much. I really want to go back to school, but I also want to keep Daddy School going. My daddy says that the law says I can’t do this. I want you to change this law so I can do both. Thank you for listening. I think you are really nice and a really good Taoiseach.”