The length of school closures in Ireland was the biggest failure to children during the pandemic, according to the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection.
Professor Conor O’Mahony is critical of the “indiscriminate nature” of the closures, with schools in Ireland shut for longer and for more children than was the case in most comparable countries.
His annual report, covering the January 2020-June 2021 period, examines in detail the impact of Covid-19 on child protection and cites school closures as the root of many of the negative consequences of lockdown measures on children.
Prof O’Mahony calls for “future proof” pandemic-response planning to ensure that authorities don’t “fall into the trap” of forgetting all that has been learned about the effects of closure on children.
A separate report today from Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon echoes Prof O’Mahony’s findings and also highlights a lack of priority paid to children’s rights when decisions affecting around school closures were made during the pandemic.
Prof O’Mahony said since the Covid pandemic was declared in March 2020, schools in Ireland closed for longer and for more children than was the case in most comparable countries.
Closures affected children’s education, their physical and mental health and also left many in unsafe home environments.
School closures and other lockdown measures kept children out of the sight of people, such as teachers, doctors and sports coaches, who would normally act as key sources of information and referrals to child protection services, he noted.
Children and young people lost between 90 and 110 school days, with primary pupils out of school for about half the standard school year while some post-primary students lost up to two-thirds of the school year.
The impact of the closures was unevenly spread, with clear evidence that the biggest impact was concentrated on children with special educational needs and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Prof O’Mahony said this was particularly acute in Ireland, where – unlike in many comparable jurisdictions, closures affected all children for the vast majority of the period.
Referring to the delayed reopening after the Christmas 2020 break, he noted that there no exceptional openings for specific groups of children until the final two weeks of February.
Prof O’Mahony said children’s interests did not receive the level of priority that they might have received in decision-making, in early 2021 in particular.
Prof O’Mahony said that while contingency plans for school closures have their place, sole reliance on such plans was the wrong starting point because it places school closures too high on the menu of public health measures.
“It is recommended that a more important measure would be to develop and implement plans aimed at avoiding lengthy and indiscriminate school closures in future pandemics," he said.
“The aim should be to keep schools open for all children; or, if this proves impossible, to keep them open at least for children from disadvantaged communities and children with special educational needs.”
Prof O’Mahony said the Department of Education, in conjunction with the HSE and other partners, should proactively develop a pandemic response plan that is future-proofed so far as possible and kept under regular review in light of the latest public health research.
He said infrastructural issues such as the provision of proper ventilation in school buildings should be worked on now so that they will be in place in the event of another pandemic, while also providing other benefits in the meantime.
It was imperative not to fall into the trap of forgetting all the evidence that had been accumulated on the impact of school closures and the measures needed to keep them open.
“Keeping schools open would serve to avoid or greatly mitigate many of the harms experienced by children during a pandemic,” he said.