The Irish Times view on closing schools: urgent need to protect our most vulnerable

Many young people with disabilities and additional needs regressed and lost key skills during previous school closures. We cannot allow this to happen again

Research shows school closures last year were hugely harmful to the most vulnerable children in our community. File photograph: iStock

Research shows school closures last year were hugely harmful to the most vulnerable children in our community. File photograph: iStock

 

A key lesson learned from the first Covid-19 wave was this: school closures were hugely harmful to the most vulnerable children in our community. Many young people with disabilities and additional needs regressed and lost key skills without access to special education and therapeutic support. The education gap between the haves and have-nots widened due to a lack of access to devices, broadband or chaotic home environments. It damaged the wellbeing, development and educational attainment of many others.

The Government’s decision to close most schools until February 1st is deeply regrettable but understandable. It weighs up the risk between the impact of school closures on children and the public health of the wider community. With virus transmission rates in the community at an all-time high and health services pushed to crisis point, the risks of mobilising more than one million children and teachers were deemed too great at this time.

However, the Government’s U-turn on its plan to reopen special schools from next Monday will come as a bitter blow to parents and students with additional needs. The original decision was a proportionate response given the lifeline of support they provide in challenging times. Across most of Europe, special schools have been exempt from closures for this reason.

Although teachers’ unions and others have legitimate health and safety concerns, these should have been addressed through proper consultation. The chaotic handling of the plans this week only added to anxiety levels on all sides. The Government now needs to develop a robust plan to reopen schools for these pupils or provide interim supports such as home tuition if this is not possible.

Elsewhere, students and teachers are preparing for a return to remote learning. Schools are better prepared on this occasion but it is no substitute for school-based learning. Some children will lose out and many are at risk of disengaging from classes altogether. Reopening schools as soon as possible will be crucial to limiting learning loss and, ultimately, to helping children reach their full potential.

Work needs to begin now to ensure we are ready for a safe reopening. This must involve meaningful consultation with education stakeholders. The evidence from public health experts last year showed that schools are not high-risk environments for students and staff.

Thanks to the work of principals, teachers and staff, the safe operation of schools between September and December was a rare bright spot in the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. There is every reason to believe that a safe return to the classroom is possible once the current wave is brought under control.