For a great many children school is their safe haven – it’s where they get a nutritious meal, where they get access to necessary therapies, it’s where they do art, read books and get to be a child.
The impact of the pandemic on children’s school lives accounted for a significant proportion of the 79 per cent increase in complaints to the Ombudsman for Children’s office (OCO) last year. Among the most frequent complaints were those about cold classrooms, disruption to the Leaving Certificate and children having to wear masks at school. The office’s annual report sets out these themes, largely without comment.
Clear, however, is the view of Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon that insufficient consideration was given by Government to the inevitable and disproportionate harm long school closures would have on vulnerable children.
His office was one of 13 across Europe and Central Asia to conduct a pilot child-rights impact assessment (CRIA) of the impact of Covid-19 measures on children's rights. It found young people, especially those experiencing mental health difficulties, homeless children, children living in direct provision, children with disabilities, and Traveller and Roma children, experienced "primarily negative impacts". These were on their mental health, their nutrition and their safety where they were forced to stay home all day in settings where they may be exposed to abuse and neglect.
The blanket closures here stood in contrast to the approach taken in Britain, where pre-school settings and schools remained open for children of key workers, and, crucially, for vulnerable children. It remains unclear why the Government, which showed such agility in other areas through the pandemic, appears not to have considered keeping schools open as a protective measure for key groups of children.
Having failed adequately to consider their needs during the Covid crisis, Government – across its departments – must invest time, imagination and additional spending to ensure that any long-term damage can be mitigated.