The Irish Times view on closing schools: a cruel blow to the most vulnerable
Last year’s school closures were hugely damaging to the most vulnerable children in our community. Now, they are losing out all over again
Last year’s school closures were hugely damaging to the most vulnerable children in our community. File photograph: iStock
Children with disabilities and their families have been dealt a cruel blow by the continued failure of the Government and unions to provide for the reopening of special schools and classes. Last year’s school closures were hugely damaging to the most vulnerable children. Many young people with disabilities and additional needs regressed and lost key skills due to being deprived of special education and therapeutic support.
Ireland is now an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person education available for pupils with special educational needs. The danger is these children are not just missing out on education; there are growing welfare and wellbeing concerns for at-risk families.
Reopening essential services in the middle of a pandemic requires a careful balancing. The risk of contracting Covid-19 needs to be weighed against the downsides of keeping services closed. Teachers have genuine health concerns given the extent of virus transmission in the community. We also know the harm school closures cause to vulnerable children. However, we have public health specialists whose role is to gauge these risks. Their advice in this case is clear: schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students with additional needs. While the general advice is that people stay at home, this does not apply to essential workers providing an essential service. This is why other frontline services have returned in some shape or form.
In rejecting this advice, there is an onus on unions representing school staff to clarify what exactly will constitute a safe reopening of schools. To what level will transmission of the virus need to drop before vulnerable children can have their constitutional right to education respected? And if there is evidence that schools are unsafe, why are union members in the case of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation working in classrooms in the North but not south of the Border?
Both sides have levelled incendiary accusations at each other, which risks further destabilising a partnership which requires openness and trust. Civil engagement is the only way a solution will be found. De-escalation and temperate language is needed. It is also vital that the voices of pupils and their families are properly represented at the negotiating table. Too often there has been tokenism instead of meaningful engagement. If schools remain closed, it is vital to deliver therapeutic or educational supports to families who need them most.
Thanks to the work of principals, teachers and staff, the safe operation of schools between September and December last year was a rare bright spot in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A safe return to the classroom is urgently needed. Our most vulnerable citizens cannot wait.