Covid-19: ‘I shouldn’t have to choose between one son’s education and the other’s life’

Child cannot return to school as fears that high risk brother could get virus, says mother

Tracy McGinnis with her sons Brendan (16) and Declan (12), from Co Wexford. Declan is not entitled to remote learning. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Tracy McGinnis with her sons Brendan (16) and Declan (12), from Co Wexford. Declan is not entitled to remote learning. Photograph: Patrick Browne

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Tracy McGinnis’s boys, Declan (12) and Brendan (16), have not been at school since March.

Brendan is profoundly disabled from a virus he contracted in the womb and is categorised as very high risk in the event of contracting Covid-19.

Declan has no medical problems, but has not attended secondary school because of fears he could bring coronavirus home.

“Knowing viruses as well as I do, it wouldn’t end well for Brendan,” says McGinnis, who lives in Co Wexford.

“My younger son has to travel on a private bus which operates at full capacity in a school with 800 teenagers. It’s just too great a risk,” she says.

While children who are labelled as very high risk are entitled to remote tuition under Department of Education policies, the siblings of such children are not. Consequently, says McGinnis, Declan has not been able to access any tuition since September.

“At the start, he’d be sitting at the table at 9am, trying to do keep up with school books but’s he’s losing faith and losing interest. He feels no one cares – his words,” she says.

This week she received a letter from his school, confirming that it could not offer him anything.

“We are not in a position to provide streaming classes/remote teaching to Declan as he is not himself in the very high risk category and the DE [Department of Education] guidelines are clear. We understand and sympathise with your situation but our hands are tied in this regard,” the letter states.

When asked if he could repeat first year of school next year, the school responded: “This would be dependent on space being available: currently there is a waiting list in place.”

How many children affected?

Declan is not alone. Campaign groups estimate that there may be hundreds of children countrywide not now going to school because they live with a very high risk family member.

Tusla collected data on the number of children absent from schools for Covid-19 reasons in late September, but has declined to indicate how many there are, beyond saying: “We do not, from early indications, have a significant concern”.

The department also has the data and has declined to say how many children are affected.

With regard to Covid-19 concerns, the department says public health advice it has received is that schools are safe and children with very high risk family members can return to school.

McGinnis argues there is a solution. If the number of children affected is not large, then why not extend remote tuition to this category ?

“ I can’t see that it would cost more to do it for a few extra students. It’s nonsensical what’s happening. It’s putting the wellbeing of children in this situation way down the ladder,” she says.

“We’ve been in touch with politicians, the Ombudsman for Children, we’ve written to the chief medical officer. Everything I can think of . . . I shouldn’t have to choose between one son’s education and another son’s life. That’s how it is.

“Declan has sacrificed so much in his life so far; it’s so cruel to see him sacrifice something which is so close within his reach , which is remote or streamed learning . . . It’s heartbreaking.”

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