Schools may not close during future orange weather warnings, says Tánaiste

Decision was precautionary due to the nature of Storm Barra, says Varadkar

Storm Barra scenes in Clontarf, Dublin. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Storm Barra scenes in Clontarf, Dublin. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that schools will not necessarily be closed during future orange weather warnings.

He was speaking after the Government decided to close schools in orange warning areas for the second day in a row due to Storm Barra.

The decision led hundreds of thousands of working parents having to take care of children who would otherwise be in schools or creches, despite less severe weather in some areas like Dublin.

Parts of the country did experience extreme weather and red warnings were in place for some counties. The Department said schools would reopen as normal on Thursday.

The decision to close schools and childcare in several counties for a second day came late on Tuesday night after Met Éireann changed its categorisation to orange for the early part of the morning.

Speaking to reporters in Drogheda, Mr Varadkar was asked if the school closures in Dublin were an overreaction.

Mr Varadkar said: “Traditionally what we’ve done is when there’s a red weather warning, schools are closed. When there’s an orange weather warning, they’re not.”

He said: “The Government took a decision on Monday, that because of the nature of this particular weather event that we would close schools in the orange areas.”

“That was because of the nature of the of the weather event which involved rain and snow and wind and also floods so that’s why that decision was taken,” Mr Varadkar added.

He said the decision “was certainly one that was precautionary, and one that was designed to minimise the risk of injury or loss of life.”

Asked if schools would be closed in orange warning areas for future storms this winter, Mr Varadkar replied: “Not necessarily.”

“As I say this is the first time that we’ve closed schools as a result of an orange warning.

“It’s always the case that we close them as a result of a red warning.”

Later, at Fine Gael’s parliamentary party meeting, Senators Paddy Burke and Tim Lombard raised concern over the closure of schools in parts of the country where the weather was less severe.

Sources said points raised included questions about who made the decision and why it was not left to school boards of management.

Minister of State for the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan is said to have told the meeting the focus was on preventing loss of life and “safety first”.

Minister of State at the Department of Education Josepha Madigan suggested the reason for the closures in Dublin was that despite the lifting of status orange at 7am on Wednesday, there was not enough time for school staff to ensure premises were safe.

Elsewhere, Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín criticised the centralised nature of the decision to close schools in orange weather warning areas on the east coast claiming it was an “example of adults not being treated as adults by the State”.

He said it was clear there were strong winds and damage in the west and the north and said “people’s safety is very important in these situations”.

However, Mr Tóibín said Met Éireann said the status orange alert was due to end at 7am on Wednesday morning “so in reality Dublin schools were closed in a status yellow category”.

A Department of Education spokesman responded to Mr Tóibín’s remarks saying that schools in Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Wexford were advised that they should remain closed on Wednesday at around 5.30pm on Tuesday.

He said that: “Following a Met Éireann advisory that Dublin was forecast to be in an Orange alert area until 8 am today, Dublin was added to this list.”

The spokesman said: “Schools were advised as quickly as possible after this information became available and information issued to the media to ensure swift dissemination to school communities.”

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), said the late call on Tuesday had caused problems.

However, “once [schools] were in an orange alert area and there was a possibility of being in red, you have to air on the side of caution.”

He said: “Nobody’s going to get it perfect every time, I think safety prevails here.”

Margaret Hughes, principal of Our Lady Immaculate Junior National School in Darndale, Dublin said the anxiety that follows such late changes must be taken into consideration in future.

“It was very difficult because there was a sense [that] until you get official word from the Department, you don’t know what to do,” she said of the unfolding situation on Tuesday.

“Then you are also thinking about how we are going to get the message out at that time of night; it’s not just the staff [that are affected], it’s the parents and the children.”

While common sense was important regarding safety issues, she said, the lateness of the Government advice had an impact and some concerned parents contacted her after it was updated.

“It’s very hard for them,” she said. “They are trying to prepare for the next day [including] jobs and childcare.”

Kathryn Corbett, principal at Bishop Galvin NS senior school in Tempelogue, Dublin, said even a yellow status permission to reopen on Wednesday morning would have left a tight response window, especially if minor damage required attention.

“As a principal you are always on call…if something happens you need to be able to respond,” she said of the late night development.

She said while a parent’s perspective might relate to their children, a principal’s perspective was the school and the Department’s was the country.

“Safety for me comes first. It might have been challenging for the parents, but I suppose all the students were safe.”

At East Galway’s Eglish national school, principal Siobhan Fitzgerald welcomed the department’s advice but said, as in other situations, schools had been left fielding queries from concerned parents before staff had been brought up to speed.

Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin tweeted that the Department had “acted swiftly. Inconvenience for families at short notice [is] much better than injury or worse”.