Covid-19: Thousands of children did not return to school following closures

Ombudsman voices concern over ‘forgotten families’ without access to education

The Department of Education. Figures provided  by social services and the department  show that most of 4,500 children who failed to return to school did so for Covid-19 reasons. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The Department of Education. Figures provided by social services and the department show that most of 4,500 children who failed to return to school did so for Covid-19 reasons. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Some 4,500 children did not return to school when it reopened following Covid closures last year, official data shows.

Figures provided to The Irish Times by social services and the Department of Education show most of these children (57 per cent) did not return for Covid-19 reasons.

This may include children who have high-risk medical conditions or who are living with vulnerable family members.

The remainder (43 per cent or 1,980) did not return for a variety of other reasons such as dropping out of school or entering further education and training or employment.

Schools have indicated that these numbers – collected in October and November last year – have since reduced as more learners returned due to supports being offered or because parents who had concerns felt it safe to return their child to school.

Tusla, which monitors school attendance, also said the volume of referrals it received for students with poor or non-attendance is similar to previous years.

However, there is concern over the number of children who may not be in receipt of any formal education because they are cocooning with vulnerable parents or siblings.

Under Department of Education guidelines, schools are permitted to provide remote teaching to about 700 students who are medically certified as being at very high risk.

Pupils who live with highly vulnerable family members have no such entitlement.

Alarm

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon expressed alarm over the plight of these “forgotten families” who are fearful of bringing Covid-19 into the home.

“While I am delighted that schools have reopened, I am frustrated by the lack of action on this specific issue. Attending face-to-face classes is what most students need. However, the reopening of schools means that the online learning this group accessed during the lockdown is no longer an option for them,” he said.

“Some of these children are doing their Leaving Certificate exams and they are missing out despite a solution being close to hand for the department. This issue needs to be addressed without delay.”

The department said the advice of the public-health specialists is that, when schools are open, it is “difficult to justify cocooning in most children” and that “long-term cocooning of children is likely to adversely affect them and may outweigh the potential risk of infection”.

It also noted that there has been a spike in numbers applying for home education, with numbers up by 1,300 over the same period last year.

The department said it was reasonable to assume that a large number of these are learners who have not returned due to Covid-19 reasons.

However, Dr Muldoon said written public-health advice he received from deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn states that while benefits outweigh risks for the vast majority of children living with vulnerable family members, there may be “exceptional contextual factors which affect that risk-benefit ratio in rare individual circumstance”.

On foot of this, Dr Muldoon said the department should provide for children affected by these exceptional circumstances.

“We cannot rely on the vaccine rollout to reduce the number of children affected by this issue. We must ensure that all children have access to education,” he said.