PRESS RELEASE: Measures Needed Now for Disadvantaged Students and Children with Special Needs and Urgent Plan Needed to Open Schools on 1 February 2021

A message from Children’s Rights Alliance”

 

Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the ISPCC and the National Parents’ Council Primary have come together to call on the Government to develop an urgent plan to reopen the schools on 1 February given the negative impact of school closures on children and young people, and to take action now to support vulnerable students.

We note NPHET’s recent advice on schools emphasised the negative risks to children’s mental health, wellbeing, development, educational attainment and overall health outcomes.

“While acknowledging the deteriorating epidemiological situation, this advice was based on an assessment at that time that the known negative impacts of school closures on children (including student mental health, wellbeing, development, educational attainment and overall health outcomes), outweighed the risks of reopening in terms of potential direct health risks to children and staff from Covid-19 (with evidence to date confirming that schools are a safe and protected environment) and the wider impact of school opening on community transmission levels.” (NPHET Letter dated 30 December 2020).

 

Yesterday (07.01.21), the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET representatives addressed the issue of school closures in their briefing, stating once again that the data showed schools were a safe environment for children and young people, with very low rates of transmission. However, with growing concern regarding increasing cases of Covid-19 in the community, the Government has chosen to close schools to limit movement/contacts outside the school body to try and reduce transmission overall.

Suzanne Connolly, CEO Barnardos says, “Many of the thousands of children that Barnardos work with, mainly those living in situations where they face additional challenges in the home such as addiction, poor mental health, domestic violence, low educational attainment, or financial challenges, suffered greatly during the last school closures. We are calling for a plan to be made available for reopening of schools on February 1st that also includes immediate measures to ensure children who have already felt the brunt of closures, will not again fall victim.”

Educators know first-hand how disruptive the last lockdown was for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Speaking on the experience in her school, Principal of Rutland St National School in Dublin 1, Niamh Murray said: “The impact of the school’s closure on vulnerable children is a real concern. School is a warm safe place for many children who love coming through the doors every morning. Some children live in difficult circumstances and may not have the support or resources at home to access online learning. The closure will have a disproportionate effect on children in disadvantaged communities.”

Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance said, “We are deeply concerned about the impact of school closures on the most vulnerable children in the country where school is a sanctuary. Those children are now invisible. Many are living with families struggling with addiction, poor mental health and where violence is part of their everyday life. They are waking up in homes that are cold and they have nowhere to go. It is unacceptable that these children have to again pay the price of the lockdown.”

Áine Lynch, CEO of National Parents’ Council Primary, stated, “The efforts being made by those in the early years sector to ensure their services remain open for very vulnerable children and essential workers will be critical in supporting essential workers in education to reopen schools for our most vulnerable students by providing quality childcare for their children.

We are concerned that following the Government’s announcement last night regarding the delayed reopening of special education schools and classes, that there are no in-school options for vulnerable children in any setting including children with special education needs and children experiencing education disadvantage. There are vulnerable children in specialist settings and in mainstream classes who have regressed hugely because of the last lockdown and their families are desperate for them not to fall behind again.

We are and are now strongly advocating for provisions to be made as soon as possible, in line with public health advice, for in-school learning for children with special educational needs and those experiencing education disadvantage.”

The organisations are calling on Government to now:

  1. Put in place a realistic plan to open schools fully on 1 February 2021 in line with public health advice.
  2. Before 1 February, support schools to provide in-school supports and education to their most vulnerable children in specialist and mainstream classes.

Tanya Ward continued, “We understand that schools are dealing with staff absences and requirements for self-isolation and that this in itself can make opening schools difficult. We are also all living through a very unsettling third wave of this pandemic. Schools and their staff cannot do this alone. Government support will be essential to ensure schools remain a safe environment for children and their teachers, but it is critically important that there is a collective effort from Departments to reopen schools as soon as possible, particularly for young students with additional needs and those more vulnerable. Decisions must be made in consultation with young people as well as education staff to ensure the voices and concerns of those at the centre of this issue are heard and heeded.

We are also calling on Government to urgently develop plans in partnership with Principals and School Boards of Management and to provide them with flexibility and support so they can cater to the needs of disadvantaged children and those that need our support the most.”

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