Lockdown quandary: We must commit to keeping schools open this time
Closures resulted in children suffering from depression, hunger and even violence
A study on the effect of the first lockdown on children and families in Ireland showed that many families believe that children have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Photograph: Alan Betson
Last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that keeping schools fully open in April is a top priority. When it comes to the Government’s commitment to children’s education and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic, we have heard it all before.
A Government briefing in December stated that keeping schools open remains an overall priority, while deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn claimed in January that closing schools should be a “last resort”.
Yet, the Government was warned by public health officials that opening both restaurants and allowing for increased household mixing in the run-up to Christmas would have a massively detrimental effect on Covid-19 transmission rates. If politicians had been briefed on the impact of opening businesses in December, and the reality of that decision would mean the closure of schools in January, it is reasonable to assume that opening businesses for the important Christmas trade period trumped children’s rights to education.
Closing schools has had wide-ranging ill effects on children. For children, closing schools results in increased risk ofa loss of learning, anxiety and depression, hunger; and even violence, both sexual and physical. Interpol has warned of under-reporting of child sexual violence and increased sharing of child exploitation material through peer-to-peer networks as a result of the pandemic, while some clinicians have reported an increase in injuries related to physical violence against children.
The closure of schools serves to cut a means of communication between child and State. In the absence of this line of communication, many children may be suffering in isolation. Vulnerable children may be in the grip of a “silent pandemic” of violence, without any means of letting the outside world know of their plight.
Lockdown fatigue, together with initiation of vaccines, may lull many into the belief that it is safe to open up
Yet, when it comes to focusing on children, the answer may not be “keep schools open, come what may”. It is easy to forget that children are not immune to the virus. While it is true that children are less likely to suffer severely from the disease, they can still contract coronavirus. In fact, public health datashows an increase of the disease in the youngest cohorts. Children can also suffer from “Long Covid”; UK data show that every 13th child has not fully recovered after three months.
Moreover, the impact of losing a parent cannot be ignored. Studies have shown that the loss of one or both parents can be associated with an increased risk of mental health problems among children. While evidence is still being collected, research shows that adults who live with children have an increased risk of developing Covid-19. At one French school, 20 children have lost a parent to the disease.
At a certain level of prevalence, it may be justified to close the schools. The question is, how do we ensure that this really is a last resort?
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of December. Any strategy that aims at preventing school closures must first make sure schools are safe for children and teachers. Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at the School of Architecture UCD, has delineateda plan for making schools safe, including assessing for poor ventilation and moving high-risk activities outside.
Yet, unfortunately, such a plan may end up being an attempt at closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are in a highly sensitive stage in the pandemic. We have endured a long, hard post-Christmas lockdown. With the commencement of the vaccine rollout, some among us can look forward to the feeling of safety that protection from the disease may bring. Lockdown fatigue, together with initiation of vaccines, may lull many into the belief that it is safe to open up. Already, certain adult interest groups are pushing for Government to consider easing restrictions for this group of people.
Years of underinvestment have meant that we entered the pandemic with a healthcare system not fit for purpose
Opening up hairdressers and restaurants will inevitably mean more mixing of people, probably vaccinated and unvaccinated persons. Evidence from other countries, further along in their vaccination journey, gives a mixed picture of success. For example, Israel’s vaccination programme saw an initial increase in the hospitalisation of younger members of its population.
Ireland is a special case in some ways. Years of underinvestment have meant that we entered the pandemic with a healthcare system not fit for purpose. This has had the knock-on effect that, at various points in the pandemic, school closures have been necessitated to protect the functioning of our hospital system.
Like in December, we stand at the cusp of making decisions that will affect children. If we open up, even if only for vaccinated people, we will see more mixing and thus an increase in hospital admissions. Given the lack of capacity in the Irish system, this will potentially mean a closure of schools.
A study on the effect of the first lockdown on children and families in Ireland showed that many families believe that children have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Isolated and vulnerable, they have seen their schools close and their wellbeing sacrificed: sometimes, they have been left alone to suffer physical and sexual violence. They have endured this to protect the adults within their communities.
It may seem a difficult ask, for older vaccinated people, to continue in some form of isolation. Many of those that are now vaccinated suffered social isolation and depression during the pandemic. To continue to restrict their ability to see a hairdresser and go for lunch, albeit for a temporary period as vaccines roll out, may seem cruel. Yet, it is only asking from them what has been given by children, who have been forced to sacrifice so much. It is asking them to bear the brunt of the pandemic in order to protect the youngest in their communities.