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Education officials pushing for schools to stay open

Department highlights impact on children's welfare if mid-term is extended

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Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Julie Behal

Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Julie Behal

Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Julie Behal

Attempts to close schools again during the pandemic would be resisted by education officials because of child welfare concerns and a need to keep children learning.

Department of Education sources say they are worried about the consequences of closing schools and the suggestion of an extended mid-term break. While they concede schools will have to shut if the spread of Covid-19 gets out of hand, they said it must be considered that some children are better off in school than out of it.

It comes as the ISPCC and Tusla, the State's child and family agency responsible for improving children's wellbeing, both highlighted the negative impact of school closures.

"Teachers, coaches and other trusted adults in children's lives can play an important role in helping to keep them safe," the ISPCC said this weekend. "When they are not in school, children and young people can be cut off from this support."

Contacts to the ISPCC's support services increased between May and June this year while children were out of school because of the pandemic. Tusla said that during the same period, "many parts of the country saw a reduction in the number of referrals to child protection and welfare services due to the closure of many services, for example, the closure of schools".

While Tusla referrals are now back to normal levels, a Department of Education source said child welfare would have to be considered before schools could be shut again.

"Schools are an important protection factor for some students," a source said.

"Some children have vulnerable backgrounds and school is a vital support for them. That must be considered."

The source said learning impacts must also be considered, especially in the case of Leaving Cert students who missed out on a sizeable portion of fifth year because of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools last March.

A Government source said, "The preference is to keep children in schools."

"There is a welfare prism to this, but there is also a learning prism. You can't replicate the classroom environment at home or somewhere else and children need to go to school. They need to see their friends and they need to keep learning. School is the best place for that," they said.

"If there are serious public health concerns about continuing that, then closures could be considered, but to date [since schools returned in September] the evidence doesn't support that. Our schools are safe."

Education officials were taken by surprise by a suggestion last week that the October mid-term break could be extended to curb the spread of Covid-19.

"We were in the dark on that one," a source said. "We don't know exactly where it has come from."

The suggestion to extend the October mid-term break was discussed briefly last week by the coalition, but the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the Department of Education insist schools can stay open.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said no decision has been taken to extend the break.

"Keeping schools safely open for children and staff is a key priority at all levels of the 'Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19'. At Levels 1 to 4 inclusive, schools can remain open with protective measures, and at Level 5, recommendations will be based on the situation and evidence at the time.

"In recommending that schools remain open at the present time, even in the current trajectory of the disease, Nphet has considered the national experience of school reopening to date, including the epidemiological data and information gathered through case and outbreak management," she said.

Despite this, teachers say they are seeking further support from the department.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation said its members have ongoing concerns about social distancing in schools with large class sizes.

"Repeatedly we have talked about issues related to social distancing in our primary schools which failed to acknowledge we have the largest class sizes in Europe," a spokesman for the union said.

"This hindered our ability to reopen and may very well be the reason our schools can't remain open in the future."

There are questions over how teachers and pupils can continue learning if schools are forced to shut, because of poor access to technology and high speed broadband for some teachers and families, he added.

Second-level teachers have raised concerns about access to PPE. Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) general secretary Kieran Christie said teachers need greater access to protective equipment, especially when dealing with children in isolation rooms who are suspected of having the virus. ASTI asked to meet the Health Protection Surveillance Centre about testing, tracing and guidelines schools must follow in the event of an outbreak, but the request was denied.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said schools are coping well with Covid-19 cases.

"Many cases of Covid-19 linked to schools in Ireland have been found to have exposure to the disease outside of the school environment," she added.


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