The government has done u-turn on plans to allow Leaving Cert students to return to school three days a week, starting from next week. Leaving Cert students will now study remotely until January 31, like other pupils.
Mercy Secondary School Ballymahon student Keira-Lily Farrell is one of many Leaving Certificate students who were outraged and felt that their health was to be put at risk with a return to school.
In an email on behalf of all Leaving Cert students sent to Minister Foley, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar TD and Eamon Ryan TD, Ms Farrell expressed her concern at the government's initial plans to open schools for those sitting their exams.
"From the 12th of March onwards to the new school term of 2020/2021, we missed the essential lessons to learn the criteria of our Leaving Cert. You gave Leaving Certs of 2020 the option of predicted grades when the positive rate was much lower and cases were fewer. Students who went on to sit the actual exam in November were a small minority so there is no proof putting all 50,000 to 60,000 students up for exams will work," she said.
In her letter, Ms Farrell also noted that Northern Ireland had cancelled the GCSEs this year, as has the rest of the UK had cancelled the A levels.
"They respect the mental well-being of their students in both exam environments and understand the pressure they are under. And giving them time to do predicted grades means they can focus better and not stress, it gives them a sigh of relief, that not everything is bad now," she wrote.
"Why must you leave us all in the dark just like mental health services here till the last minute? To our breaking points. To the point we have panic attacks, anxiety attacks and burn out from stress and panic that you could give closure to, but instead you really are making it worse."
Mental health was a major topic among Leaving Cert students last year who were left wondering throughout the beginning of the pandemic what would happen with their exams after schools were ordered to close. Ms Farrell emphasised the issue of mental health in her letter to government leaders, stating that students should not once again be subject to such stress again this year.
"There is a high rate, getting higher, of children to young adults committing suicide, struggling with mental health more than ever," Ms Farrell added.
"Our next pandemic will be suicide rates if nothing is done. Our next pandemic and global issues will be mental health. Our next pandemic will be in young people tackling stress, anxiety, depression etc.
"You have the option to help us. Prevent this course of action and have the power to help us. Not continue to leave us in the dark. Not to continue the exams are a go ahead until the last minute like the class of 2020. You have seen how villainous this virus is, so please, take us seriously. We are soon adults to this society; don't give us a sour taste of politics when we are young.
"So I beg you and plead with you for my health and for others, to help us, because we as a class of 2021 deserve better. We feel alone. We don't feel safe. We are scared. We are vulnerable as a population, as a statistic, as the next generation to make this country a better place. The leaving cert should not be the matter of life or death, especially in the eyes of unprecedented times."
Speaking to the Longford Leader today, Ms Farrell stated that she, along with many of her peers, does not feel comfortable "going back to school and risking our immune systems or mental health".
"Many concerned parents and students have been emailing and the government has not been responding," she said, stating that she herself received automated responses to her own email.
Before the government announced new plans this evening to keep schools closed to all students, Leaving Cert students across the country were planning to boycott and refuse to return to school on Monday until the positive rate is lower and cases are fewer.
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) this evening also expressed its concerns at the government's initial plans to sent exam students back to school.
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.
“We engaged with the Department of Education and with public health officials today. Unfortunately, the assurances we sought have not been forthcoming.”
Following a large number of concerns from secondary school teachers across the country, ASTI Standing Committee decided to direct its members not to cooperate with the arrangements announced by the Minister for Education for in-school teaching, but to engage in remote teaching/learning provision from Monday, January 11.
"We will not risk our lives for a piece of paper and there are many back doors into third level education," Ms Farrell told the Longford Leader.
"We will stay at home and continue our studies. The class of 2020 was given a choice of predicted grades when cases where fewer and we believed they where our darkest times. This is our darkest time now.
"We will not risk our lives when other countries such as our neighbours Northern Ireland and England have cancelled the GCSEs and A Levels.
"Us sixth years feel in the dark. We feel our needs are not being met. We are stressed and we are scared. We are travelling through this pandemic like everyone else so please give us the chance to survive without the government attempting herd immunity with us. These are unprecedented times; why should our exams be a life or death matter?"