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A statement by the Ombudsman for Children on possible closure of schools

The Office for the Ombudsman for Children, (OCO) is today urging Cabinet to avoid a blanket closure of schools due to the disproportionately negative affect this will have on children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Speaking in advance of today’s meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid -19, Dr Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children said “I would urge members of the Cabinet sub-committee and NPHET, to consider a wide range of options around the education of children. The simple, blanket closure of all schools, as happened in March last year, is not a viable option because of the massive impact it will have on our children and their families.

“Without a doubt children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once more be disproportionately affected by Covid -19 school closures, therefore any long-term measures to reduce transmission in society must consider the substantial negative impact on these groups.

“Education is about more than learning, it is about developing personalities, talents, and abilities of children to reach their greatest potential while also facilitating mental health, play and recreation. I would urge all of these decision makers to look to how they might generate a nuanced response and facilitate our vulnerable children to attend school as well as how to properly support those who engage in home learning.”

The OCO have written to the Government on a number of occasions seeking the development of more nuanced options around the closing and opening of schools during Covid-19 restrictions.

Nuala Ward, Director of Investigations at the OCO said “While the OCO remains mindful of the extremely difficult circumstances and decisions that have to be made for public health and safety there are children and families for whom remote learning is either non-existent or a non-runner.

“The Government have already decided that the prioritisation of limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccine(s) should not be based on public health considerations alone. The Allocation Framework developed by the Department of Health in this regard used ethical principles for equitable access, with prioritisation for those most in need. This means that there is already an existing decision-making framework within government that could be used by the Sub Committee and the Department of Education in their decision making about access to education.”

Nuala Ward continued “For those with special needs the safety, routine and discipline of school is about more than education, it offers a pathway for them to grow and learn socially which is vital if they were to reach their full potential. It is vital that the Government are reminded of the massive negative impact the last lockdown had on this cohort of children and their families. Regression on many fronts is guaranteed if their education is shut down again.

“For children who live in poverty and are at a socio-economic disadvantage such as Traveller and Roma children as well as for those in Direct Provision and many homeless children in family hubs and emergency accommodation, long term school closures means the inequalities they already face will be increased immeasurably.

“The right to education is a vital one for all children and so many families of children within these groups have witnessed deterioration educationally, socially and behaviourally in their children, as a consequence of the first lockdown. Many are still struggling to recover lost ground. It would be truly unjust and inequitable to have them the face this again.

“What is now required is a concerted effort to ensure that the country’s most vulnerable children can attend their schools in a manner that is safe for them, their teachers and carers.”