In a letter sent to Interim List of Eligible Programmes (an official list of visa-eligible courses for visa required students) members seen by The PIE News, the Department of Justice and Equality said that classes must resume “on a full-time, daytime, 15 hours per week, in-person basis for all students”.
The Department said that it is updating its position to be in line with a request from the Department of Further and Higher Education which, last August, told schools to reopen classrooms so they could meet the needs of students already in Ireland.
““Opening too soon will put everybody in danger. It will put students in danger, it will put teachers in danger”
In response, some ELT providers have argued that resuming face-to-face classes would put the safety of students and staff at risk, with the Progressive College Network saying it is ready to take legal action against the government if necessary.
“Opening too soon will put everybody in danger. It will put students in danger, it will put teachers in danger. Teachers have already expressed concerns because they have elderly parents, small children, or sick siblings,” PCN’s chairman, David Russell, told The PIE.
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic and unfortunately I feel that the Department of Further Education and the Department of Justice are sidelining that fact.
“These seem to be trying to steam-roll something through that forces everybody back into the classroom… they’re not taking the safety concerns into consideration.”
In regards to student and staff safety, the DoJ wrote in the letter that it is a matter for each educational institution to ensure they comply with public health guidelines.
The Department explained that these guidelines provide for exceptional, short term and temporary measures to maintain social distancing in the wider campus.
“Accordingly, at assist colleges, an exception will be made to the normal rules requiring classes between 9 am and 5 pm to allow for staggered class start times,” the Department said.
Due to public health and social distancing requirements, some college’s student capacity may have to be reduced, according to the letter.
“Notwithstanding previously notified capacity, it is not permitted to enrol more students than a college has current capacity for, in order to provide full-time, daytime, 15 hours in-person tuition per week basis for all its enrolled students,” the letter continued.
Solicitors representing PCN, wrote to the Department highlighting safety concerns, saying that language school students are particularly high risk because they originate from other jurisdictions and are of the age profile currently statistically highest for the incidences of Covid-19 in Ireland.
In addition, they warned that the capital, Dublin, is currently under level three restrictions with the expectation that before long it will move to level four restrictions as a result of the surging numbers of the virus.
“The interests of not only the health and safety of their staff and students but the public at large is paramount,” the solicitors said.
“Any such measures will have to be taken under advisement with a view to pursuing such action as may be necessary to protect in full the interests of our clients.”
They also warned that proposals to refuse visa applications for students wishing to attend the member colleges of the PCN will be regarded as an action to be reviewed.
In a recent survey of 66 language students conducted by PCN, 54.5% said they would like to return to face-to-face classes, but only when it is safe and practical to do so. By contrast, 40.9% said they would prefer online classes.
However, while the PCN has said that the resumption of in-person classes is unsafe, Marketing English in Ireland – an association of 66 regulated English language schools – noted that 81% of its adult schools have already reopened for face-to-face classes.
The organisation told The PIE that many MEI schools have been open now for more than eight weeks and have safely managed quarantine arrangements for newly arrived students in recent weeks.
“MEI schools are open and ready for face-to-face classes but have also made preparations for a smooth transition to quality online classes”
“MEI continues to engage with the Department of Justice and the Department of Further and Higher Education through the inter-departmental ELE working group,” a spokesperson told The PIE.
“MEI schools are following the ELE Industry of Ireland Reopening Guidelines… and MEI is taking the lead in reviewing best practice.”
In the letter, the Department of Justice wrote that online delivery of classes may be considered as a contingency measure if the government re-imposes restrictions on activities within society and the economy because of Covid-19.
“MEI schools are open and ready for face-to-face classes but have also made preparations for a smooth transition to quality online classes during any period of temporary regional and/or national lockdowns during the winter,” the spokesperson for MEI added.