Government 'must plan how to keep schools open in any future pandemic'

Government 'must plan how to keep schools open in any future pandemic'

A report on the effect that Covid-19 has had on children's education stated that, despite best efforts, remote learning couldn't fully bridge the gap of the classroom experience.

The Government should already be planning its response to any future pandemic, including how best to keep schools open to avoid further education disadvantage, the country's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection has said.

In his latest report, published today, Prof Conor O'Mahony assesses the impact of "the perfect storm" of Covid-19 on children and finds that those with special educational needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds were the most severely affected.

"Perhaps the biggest failure seen in Ireland was the length of the school closures, as well as their indiscriminate nature for the majority of the period in question," the report notes.

"In spite of best efforts, it was not possible for remote learning to fully bridge the gap," the report finds, with Prof O'Mahony adding that "the impact of school closures on educational development was unevenly spread".

"Evidence clearly indicates that the biggest impact was concentrated on children with special educational needs and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

"This was particularly acute in Ireland, where — unlike in many comparable jurisdictions — school closures affected all children for the vast majority of the period, with no exceptional openings for specific groups of children until the final two weeks of February. 

"When schools did re-open, many children with special educational needs had difficulty re-integrating."

The report also found that child poverty increased "while many children and young people experienced negative impacts on their physical and, especially, their mental health. Many children were forced to stay at home in unsafe environments during an enormous spike in levels of domestic abuse; some exceptionally serious cases of neglect presented themselves in the courts, and risks of exposure to cyberbullying or other online harms increased.

"At the same time, the flow of referrals to child protection services was seriously disrupted for several periods, making it more difficult to identify children at risk."

The report also forecasts increased pressure on mental health services due to the fallout of the pandemic.

"As such, it is essential that Government puts in place measures designed to forecast increased demand on services and make advance provision for it so that children who need services in the years to come can access them without undue delay," it said.

"Failure to adequately plan and resource now will lead to children suffering avoidable harm in the future."

The report also recommends how best the Government's redress scheme for survivors of Mother and Baby Homes should operate

Since the report was completed, the Government has announced the Mother and Baby Homes redress scheme and Prof O'Mahony said this should involve "a flexible approach" that would allow "all children who experienced rights' violations in Mother and Baby Homes, County Homes, or foster homes be fully included within the scope of the scheme".

Prof O'Mahony, who is Professor of Law and Deputy Dean at the School of Law at University College Cork, said there had been a number of positive developments since the start of 2020, as well as fresh concerns, such as the cancellation of 999 calls related to domestic abuse by An Garda Síochána.

One suggestion in the latest report regards the creation of a special state agency to improve Traveller accommodation. 

"Too many local authorities have failed for too long to take the issue of Traveller accommodation seriously, and careful consideration should be given to removing responsibility for this issue from local authorities and transferring it to a unit within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, or to a dedicated State agency."

More generally it calls for better inter-agency cooperation, including regarding children with a disability and those in the care system.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd