Covid school closures increased children’s exposure to abuse - Ombudsman

Suspension of in-class teaching had disproportionate effect on those already at a disadvantage, report says

Closures had consequences for mental health, nutrition normally delivered through school meals, and raised concerns about social and emotional development issues.  Photograph: iStock

Closures had consequences for mental health, nutrition normally delivered through school meals, and raised concerns about social and emotional development issues. Photograph: iStock

 

The closure of schools during Covid-19 increased children’s exposure to abuse and reduced the ability of staff to identify welfare concerns, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) has said.

Several views on the repercussions of lockdown closures for children are contained in its “child rights impact assessment” (CRIA), published on Friday, examining the effects of Government decision making on young people.

It arrived at eight key findings, including that suspension of in-class teaching had a negative effect on the right to education, and a disproportionate effect on those already at a disadvantage.

Closures had consequences for mental health, nutrition normally delivered through school meals, and raised concerns about social and emotional development issues.

However, of particular concern was the potential for children left at home to be at risk of physical harm.

“School closures, together with other lockdown measures, increased children’s exposure to harm and abuse, including domestic violence,” it noted. “Closures also reduced opportunities for school-based professionals to identify, monitor and report on child protection and welfare concerns.”

Child rights impact assessments (CRIAa)are designed to examine potential impacts of laws, policies, budget decisions, programmes and services on children. They are considered by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to be a key measure available to States to progress children’s rights.

However, while Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, the State has not yet introduced CRIAs to support their implementation.

Head of policy at the Ombudsman’s office, Dr Karen McAuley, said that although all children were impacted by lockdown measures forcing the closure of schools, this was particularly the case for those experiencing mental health difficulties, homeless children, those living in Direct Provision, children with disabilities, and Traveller and Roma children.

“Not enough consideration was given to their specific needs when the initial blanket decision was made to close schools in March, 2020,” she said.

“School is about so much more than education, with the importance of teachers and other school professionals for the realisation of children’s rights evident.”

The assessment, one of 13 internationally, also found that closures brought about disruption to health service provision including the school immunisation programme as well as hearing, vision and dental checks.

Although efforts were made to maintain the School Meals Programme, it did not reach as many children as normal prompting concerns that parents would struggle to feed them.

The assessment was undertaken between last April and October and included a desk-based review of relevant documentation and interaction with stakeholder organisations.

“There are different perspectives on whether, and to what extent, children’s best interests were considered by the Government when deciding to close schools,” it found.

“None of the information reviewed for this CRIA clarifies whether or how children’s views were sought and given due weight in relation to decisions about school closures.”