Children’s rights not always central to decisions to close schools during Covid, says Ombudsman

Stock image. Photo: Barry Batchelor

Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor

The rights of children were not always central to decisions around school closures during the pandemic, according to Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon.

He said reopening schools seems to have been only partly informed by a growing appreciation of the importance of doing so for children.

“However, consideration of children’s rights does not appear to have informed decision-making regarding school closures to the extent that it might have done,” he said.

His findings follow an assessment conducted by his office of the impact of school closures on children and how well their rights were recognised when those decisions were made.

Dr Muldoon has called for a child rights-based approach to such decision-making, in line with the commitment given by the Government when they ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1992.

Thirty years on, the State has not implemented Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) or Child Rights Impact Evaluations (CRIE) envisaged in that convention.

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) in Ireland was one 13 organisation in Europe and Central Asia to conduct a pilot CRIA last year, at the request of the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) and UNICEF.

The CRIA focused on the rights of five groups of children in particular: those experiencing mental health difficulties, children who are homeless, children living in direct provision, children with disabilities, and Traveller and Roma children.

Dr Karen McAuley, who is head of policy at the OCO, described it as “a snapshot in time that aims to capture how children’s rights were impacted by the decision to close schools in 2020 and in early 2021.”

The findings include that the closures

- had a predominantly negative effect on a child’s right to education, disproportionately impacting those children already experiencing educational disadvantage;

- had a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing and/ or social and emotional development of some children;

- led to the disruption of vital health services provided in schools, such as the school immunisation programme, hearing, vision and dental checks, as well as the School Meals Programme;

- contributed to an increased risk of children experiencing harm and abuse, including domestic violence, in the home and reduced opportunities for school-based professionals to recognise and report child protection and welfare concerns

Dr McAuley said while all children were impacted, the CRIA found that the closures had a disproportionate negative impact on the five groups of children focused on, and that not enough consideration was given to their specific needs when the initial blanket decision was made to close schools in March 2020.

She said the CRIA not only highlighted the need for the State to give due regard to children’s rights when making decisions, including in emergency situations, but also to consider what special measures are needed to mitigate the disproportionate impact that decisions can have on particular groups of children.

Dr McAuley said it was also clear that school was about so much more than education, with the importance of teachers and other school professionals for the realisation of children’s rights evident.

“For many children school is also a place for them to develop emotionally and socially and to avail of important health checks,” she said.

"For some children, it is a place where they are provided with a hot meal. For other children, school provides a safe place away from potentially harmful or abusive situations at home and is a place where professionals can identify and report child protection and welfare concerns.”