Tuesday 17 September 2019

Blanket closure, really? Surely schools could have made their own decisions

A fallen tree blocks the R292 at Culleenamore, Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
A fallen tree blocks the R292 at Culleenamore, Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Tree damage in Clonmel after Hurricane Ophelia hit the Tipperary town. Photo: Mark Condren
Trees down near Dungarvan Co. Waterford. Picture: Patrick Browne
A fallen tree on Northbrook Road, Ranelagh, which was blown over during Hurricane Ophelia. Photo: Tony Gavin

Catherine O’Mahony

Really, Richard Bruton? A second day off for all schools, right across the country?

Well, whatever about Ophelia, I’m surprised the roofs of houses right across Ireland were not lifted by the collective whoops of elated children facing into a second blissful day of slacking on the sofa watching telly (if they were lucky enough to be living in homes that still have electricity).

Many of their parents, however, will have been rather less delighted to hear the Minister for Education announce, midway through yesterday afternoon, that a decision had been taken to close all schools today, irrespective of their location and of the level of damage in their area.

Did the Government realise just how disruptive this would be for families right across Ireland? Note to Richard Bruton: most parents work outside the home these days and employers aren’t all that thrilled when staff stay home two days running.

Clearly this decision makes nothing but sense for some schools. In Cork, the poor old Douglas Community School had the roof blown off its gym in spectacular fashion. It hardly bears thinking about what might have happened had there been children in the building, and it’s clear the management of that school - and others like it - will need time to assess damage and make repairs before having to take responsibility for hundreds of teenagers again.

But Douglas Community is just one of thousands of schools.

And for every school faced with a significant structural challenge after the storms, there are surely at least a dozen or more that will have weathered the storms with no significant damage at all.

Clearly identifying these schools would have been an insurmountable task for the Department of Education in the time it had to reach a decision. But could the schools themselves not have been allowed to make a call on whether or not to open? Could we not have assumed they would act with caution?

The blanket closure decision was made, Bruton said, “in the interests of children” - and this is an explanation that is hard to challenge. Naturally we all want our children to be safe, not matter how inconvenient it may be to keep them that way.

Perhaps the Department of Education is on a damage limitation exercise after waiting rather inexplicably until after most kids’ bedtimes on  Sunday - and this was when an actual hurricane was pending -  to let parents know that the schools wouldn’t open the following day. The confusion did nobody any favours.

Perhaps it felt it would be politic to be a tad more decisive on Day 2 of the general weather crisis. Hence the early warning.

It may be good PR but it’s no great help to the hundreds of thousands of parents left scrambling to make some kind of arrangements for their kids for a second 24-hour period, in the full knowledge that it may be wholly unnecessary.

Spare a thought in particular for homes that the storm has left without  electricity, or - worse still - those left without power or water. No Netflix, no hot food, no bathtime and no lights? Those parents must have been counting the minutes until the schools came back on stream.

Roll on tomorrow.

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