Children face ‘long-lasting harm’ if schools remain shut

Review to show that younger school children most likely to be adversely affected by closure

More than 30% of parents reported boredom, irritability, increased worrying, feelings of loneliness and restlessness in children. File photograph: Getty

More than 30% of parents reported boredom, irritability, increased worrying, feelings of loneliness and restlessness in children. File photograph: Getty

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Children have become the “invisible casualties” of the pandemic and are at risk of “long-lasting harm” if schools remain closed, according to a clinical review to be published by the Health Service Executive this week.

Experts warn that primary school children are most at risk and among those younger children and children with additional learning needs and special needs are the most likely to be adversely affected by the closure of the schools.

The report comes as schools around the country begin to reopen this week. It was compiled by Dr Ellen Crushell (consultant paediatrician and Dean of Faculty of Paediatrics at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland), Dr John Murphy (consultant neonatologist) and Jacqueline Lacy (programme manager of the national clinical programme for children).

The report is expected to acknowledge that the opening of schools increases the risk of infection. However, it will say that this risk is “unavoidable”.

“We know that we must strive to restore children’s lives to normal. The current restrictive strategy can’t continue much longer. It has the potential cause long-lasting harm,” notes a draft circulated among senior officials and clinicians.

“Primary schoolchildren are most affected because they are unable to participate in self-directed learning,” the draft warns. “The critical period for attainment of literacy skills and specifically reading is up to eight years. Reading ability is the foundation for ongoing vocabulary development and for wider educational attainment. Delays in this development will have knock-on effects.”

Children with additional learning needs and/or special needs “are disproportionately affected by the school closures. They need the structure of ongoing access to their individualised learning plans supported by the special needs assistants (SNA), teachers and special education needs team within their school,” it says.

What about other countries?

The experts also reviewed evidence of the effects on children in other countries as a guide to Irish children’s experiences. It says that studies in China found that almost a quarter of children reported “depressive symptoms one month after lockdown”, while a report from Italy and Spain shows that 86 per cent of parents reported adverse changes in their child’s emotional wellbeing.

“More than 30 per cent of parents reported boredom, irritability, increased worrying, feelings of loneliness and restlessness in their children,” it says.

In addition the report finds that there are “added concerns about child welfare due to rise in family distress, domestic violence, parental alcohol intake and excessive time being spent by children on the internet. Educational settings are a natural area of vigilance of child welfare.”

The draft report says that while there is an increased risk of infection, the effects on children are milder than among adults.

“The UK and other countries have similarly reported low Covid-19 infectivity and morbidity rates in children. The available data points to a lower child-to-adult transmission rate compared with adult-to-adult transmission rates.”

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