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School closures should not be the default response – Ombudsman for Children

The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, has today (Tuesday), called for the Government to explore all options and to maintain their commitment to keep schools open.

Speaking ahead of a meeting between the Department of Education, health officials, unions and school management bodies, the Ombudsman for Children said:

“Closing schools and denying children access to in-person learning cannot be our default response. There is no doubt that the extremely high case numbers arising from the Omicron variant will be a challenge for everyone in the school community, but almost two years into the pandemic we know the negative impact school closures have, not only on children’s learning, but on their social development. We also know that the most vulnerable children and those with special needs are disproportionately affected.

“I support the view of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Conor O’Mahony who said that school closures are not a simple trade-off between education and health. The negative impacts are wider and deeper than missing a few weeks of classes.

“The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection also called for Government to ensure that we have exhausted every safeguard and mitigation before looking at the option of school closures. This makes sense and it is something that I expect the Government and the Department of Education have been considering for some time.

“We should be trying to make this happen rather than retreating and going back to the same measures that were relied on twelve months ago. Each school, be that primary or secondary are dealing with their own individual problems and circumstances and we should support the principals to make the right decisions for their school. A one size fits all approach is not in anyone’s interest.

“Although the increase in Covid-19 cases over the Christmas break has been frightening, it was not unforeseen. I wrote to the Taoiseach before the Christmas break in light of the warnings in relation to Omicron and reinforced my view that keeping schools open is in the best interests of children.

“Realistically, I know that in the coming weeks there will be situations where classes or schools may have to move to online learning due to staff shortages. There may also be a need to make materials available to children who have tested positive or are isolating. Teachers and everyone in school communities must be supported to make this happen. They should also be provided with the equipment needed to ensure that schools remain as safe as possible for all children and staff.

“If a situation arises where school closures must be considered, all schools and students should not be treated the same, but I really hope that it does not come to that. Every effort must be made to ensure that Ireland, like most other countries in Europe, reopens our schools.”