Fears for exam students as weather keeps schools closed
MORE than 3,000 schools will remain shut today as parents face the prospect of widespread closures continuing into next week.
The cold forced about three-quarters of the country's schools to postpone the start of the new term yesterday.
The schools remain shut not just because of treacherous roads and hazardous school grounds, but also, in some cases, because of frozen or leaking pipes or burst heating boilers.
The severe conditions have closed up to 80pc of the 3,200 primary schools, about two-thirds of secondary schools and, in different counties, between 50pc and 100pc of vocational schools, giving more than half a million pupils an extended holiday.
While most schools took a decision in advance to close, some opened yesterday, but only briefly, because of travel difficulties experienced by pupils and teachers.
Bus Eireann, which operates the school transport service for 135,000 pupils, mainly in rural areas, said many buses could not operate yesterday because the roads were unsafe.
With no guarantee of when schools would be able to re-open, concern is growing about the loss of tuition time for pupils, particularly those preparing for the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert exams.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen reiterated yesterday that it was a matter for individual school boards to decide whether local weather conditions, and other factors, such as road access and availability of school transport, warranted closure on health and safety grounds.
But amid the ongoing uncertainty about when schools will be able to re-open, a teachers' union attacked the Government's "inept response".
Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) incoming general secretary Sheila Nunan said it was known for weeks that an emergency response to the cold weather would be required.
She said widespread school closures became inevitable because "roads were left untreated which left school transport unable to function in many parts of the country. Pavements outside schools were left in a lethal condition making it unsafe for schools to open."
She said, unless urgent action was taken, on Sunday afternoon thousands of schools would still be wondering if it was safe for children to come back to school next week.
Ms Nunan said, at a minimum, parents had an expectation that children could travel to and from schools in safety.
"The Government failed to make sure that it was safe to get to school," she said.
She asked why it was "that parents have to rely on national and local media outlets for information on school openings. Collating this type of information should be the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science".
Ms Nunan also criticised the lack of local co-ordination, leaving it up to individual schools to make decisions.
She said there was a strong case for regional education authorities which could liaise with gardai and councils at local level and provide advice and guidance to all schools in an area.
"It is time the Government changed its 'let it be' attitude to schools," she said.
Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA) general secretary Michael Moriarty said some of its 250 schools did open yesterday but were unable to continue because of lack of school transport .
"School transport authorities and VECs are keeping the situation under constant review," said Mr Moriarty, who expressed concern for the education of pupils if the closures continued next week.
Exam students return to a busy schedule between the end of the Christmas holiday and the mid-term break in February, including mock exams and finalisation of project work.
Schools whose pipes have burst could be left with another major headache after the thaw sets in, with new water metering charges being introduced this month.
A number of third-level colleges, including National University of Ireland Maynooth and UCD are going ahead with scheduled exams.
However, Union of Students in Ireland deputy president Dan O'Neill said he would expect that any student who could not travel would be accommodated at a later date.