Before Maysa Araújo returned to class at her English language school in Dublin last December, she had to sign a waiver.
The waiver absolved International College of Technology (ICOT) of any responsibility if Araújo or her classmates were infected with coronavirus and if the virus spread within the school.
“We all got an email from ICOT threatening us to be expelled if we didn’t sign the letter,” says Araújo, although the email in question doesn’t really make that threat. More on that later.
Araújo was nervous to go back to class because “like so many” of her classmates, she was in a part-time job that brought her into contact with people, making her high-risk. One of her colleagues had contracted Covid-19 at the time, she says.
ICOT’s email to students said the Department of Justice had ordered English language schools to resume in-person classes. “The college is not opening according to its own choice but under the threat of sanction from the Department of Justice,” it says.
Then comes the part that Araújo took as a threat of expulsion.
“Students who do not sign will not be allowed to return, and their absence will be recorded on their attendance record,” it says.
English language students from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) must make it to at least 85 percent of classes. Otherwise, they can be expelled from school and reported to immigration authorities, which might then make them leave the country.
Araújo signed the waiver, and so did many others.
“They said it was necessary to do it,” says Rolando Rodriguez del Rivero, a former ICOT student in Dublin.
As universities held most of their lectures online to protect students and staff from Covid-19 – and flexible guidance left it to universities to plan according to their context – English language schools for a period had to teach students in classrooms.
For some students, it meant feeling unsafe in class, and those who didn’t return faced consequences.
The schools should have made sure that all students felt safe attending class, giving the option of online education to those who didn’t, Araújo says.
The way they made online learning available to “students who were not in Ireland because they couldn’t return”, she says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it is following the government plan for living with Covid-19, as it considers when and how to reopen the English-language teaching sector going forward.
At the moment all teaching is online, they said. The department “will act on the advice of [the Department of Education] in relation to a return to in-person classes”.
Protecting the School
There were usually around 10 or 12 students in her class, says Araújo.
Some rooms were large enough, says Araújo. Then there are small rooms where “you will be very close to the classmates”, she says.
It “definitely didn’t feel safe for having in-person classes”, says Araújo.
The in-person classes continued only for “two weeks”, says Martin Moloney, a solicitor for ICOT. They had safety measures in line with public-health guidelines for the higher education sector to protect staff and students, he says.
Moloney said his office advised ICOT to ask students to sign waivers as protection against potential Covid-19-related lawsuits.
“Unless and until the Irish Government legislates to exempt businesses from liability related to Covid-19, this is the only proper protection,” says Moloney.
The Department of Justice didn’t know about the waivers, says a spokesperson.
“To be clear, the Department of Justice did not at any stage instruct [English language education] providers to ask students to sign COVID-19 waivers,” they said.
They had asked schools to resume physical classes though, acting “on the advice of the Department of Further and Higher Education”, they said.
The health and safety of “all persons” during the Covid-19 pandemic is a “primary concern” for the Department of Further and Higher Education, says a spokesperson.
English language schools were asked to re-open to “meet the needs of students already in Ireland”, the spokesperson said.
The Department of Further and Higher Education had nothing to do with waivers and that schools didn’t discuss those with either department, the spokesperson said.
“No such waivers were requested nor were considered as necessary by either department,” they said.
Schools were “consistently advised that they should only reopen their classroom settings where it is safe to do”, the spokesperson said.
Moloney says the school surveyed students and “the vast majority” of them “preferred face-to-face education”, although it opened its doors only to follow government rules.
What about those who didn’t prefer physical classes?
The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) allowed students who didn’t want to attend “for stated health reasons” to stay home, Moloney says.
But those students had to engage with school admins “properly” to “establish the bona fides of their request” not to attend class, he says.
Losing Non-EEA Students
To be included in the Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP), which allows language schools to recruit non-EEA students, schools must follow Department of Justice guidelines.
One condition for joining the ILEP is holding in-person classes. In a letter to ILEP members in April 2020, the department said it had suspended the requirement, recommending a temporary shift to remote learning.
In September, though, it updated its position and asked schools to resume physical classes by 12 October 2020 to be in line with recommendations from the Department of Further and Higher Education.
If a student had to self-isolate due to Covid-19, they must not attend classes, and that would be taken into account when it came to renewing their immigration permission, the letter says.
Shortly after, the country moved to level 5 lockdown on 21 October. Schools closed again.
After it was announced that restrictions would be lifted on 2 December, and the country was to move back to level 3, the department sent another letter, on 27 November, asking English language schools to reopen when the lockdown eased.
Level 3 allowed for adult education “to open with protective measures and limit congregation as far as possible”, the letter said, and that included English language schools.
If schools can’t provide safe in-person classes “within a reasonable timeframe” they will “no longer be eligible to recruit non-EEA students”, the letter says.
That is what ICOT took as the “threat of sanction” by the department in its email to students explaining the pressure on it to resume in-person teaching.
Afraid to Return
Sergio Gonzalez was an ICOT student in the school’s Cork branch. His course started on 29 June 2020 and was due to wrap up on 15 December.
He signed the Covid-19 waiver “under pressure”, without fully grasping its consequences, he says.
Then he began to worry because he has a cheap insurance policy that barely protects him, making him more scared of catching the virus, he says.
On 8 December, ICOT expelled Gonzalez for low attendance and reported him to the immigration authorities.
He had already enrolled in Griffith College Cork to do a bachelor’s course, paying €7,000 in tuition fees, he says. Now, he worried that immigration officers would refuse to renew his visa.
“When I received the expulsion, I had a crisis. I have never been expelled from any place in my life,” he says.
Moloney said ICOT can’t comment on individual cases but said “the student” didn’t have a health reason for not attending physical classes.
A student couldn’t have dipped below 85 percent attendance by missing those two weeks of in-person classes alone, said Moloney.
“Their default was maintained over a longer period of time, during online education,” he said.
Even if he had attended those two weeks, Gonzalez’ attendance would have been lower than 85 percent.
Gonzalez says he has struggled to keep his attendance up due to the extra burden of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic and during his first year at ICOT, Gonzalez had an attendance rate of 91 percent.
Since it started though, he has been late for classes some days, he says.
Bus timetables changed due to the pandemic, sometimes he was held up at work, says Gonzalez. Sometimes poor internet connection on his phone didn’t let him join online classes on time. “I don’t have a laptop,” he says.
Being 15 minutes late to class means losing attendance credit, at least for the first half of the session, says a school handbook. He got three warnings that his attendance wasn’t “satisfactory”, he says.
On Friday, ICOT agreed to overturn his expulsion, Gonzalez says, because under INIS guidelines schools should not expel students who are close to finishing their course.
Gonzalez was only seven days away from wrapping up the programme when he got expelled, says his attendance report.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a question asking if they had considered relaxing their attendance policy for ILEP institutions during the pandemic.
[UPDATED: This article was updated on 17 February at 11.35am to correct a typo, switching IELP to ILEP. Apologies for that.]