This February will mark 12 months since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Ireland and it was on March the 12, 2020, that schools across the country closed.
What was initially hoped would be a temporary shutdown has instead become a fraught pattern of home-schooling, re-openings and closures, rumour and anxiety.
Time away from school has left children and young people devoid of school, hobbies, sports and access to close friends; it has been a long and tortuous road for very many.
For our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children, it is doubly so. For those with special needs, the safety, routine and discipline of school is much more than education, it offers a pathway for them to grow and learn socially, which is vital if they are to reach their full potential.
For children who live in poverty and are at a socio-economic disadvantage and others such as Traveller and Roma children as well as for those in direct provision and the many homeless children in family hubs and emergency accommodation, long-term school closures have meant the inequalities they already face will be increased immeasurably.
Therefore, it is very important to acknowledge the Herculean efforts that were made by the Government and stakeholders to reopen schools last September and to keep them open right through to Christmas to ensure children were able to access school-based education safely.
That is why the decision made by Cabinet on January 6, to reopen special schools and special classes for children with special educational needs was the correct one and was warmly welcomed by my office and many others, but most especially, by the parents and families of those children.
In my view, the current uncertainty cannot continue and cannot be allowed to happen again in relation to any cohort of children.
It is imperative that the Department of Education work with the education partners, public health officials and other relevant stakeholders as a matter of urgency to build on previous planning and to put in place a clear, comprehensive contingency plan that provides children and their families with the clarity they need now and into the future.
Again, acknowledging the considerable public health challenges which exist in this moment, it is exactly for times like this that contingency plans are developed, agreed, and activated. Contingency plans which outline a list of priority students who would be supported to return to school and under what circumstances.
However, the education partners do not seemed to have generated such a plan and the work being done now appears to be yet another sticking plaster to get us past a short-term crisis.
That is simply soul-destroying for the families of these 20,000 children with special needs, because you can be sure that they have been constantly generating, and revising, contingency plans for the past 11 months.
Part of this process could include developing a principles-based approach to decision-making on how access to education is prioritised.
By developing and publishing a clear, principles-based plan with all relevant parties on how school attendance by different cohorts of children will be prioritised, it would be possible to provide that much-needed confidence in the system and allow all parents, students, and educators to be sure-footed into the future.
The National Covid-19 Vaccination Strategy published last December sets out several principles to guide decision-making regarding prioritisation. It recognises that Government decisions during this time should not be based on public health considerations alone and that “using ethical principles to guide decision-making can enhance trust and solidarity and can strengthen the legitimacy and acceptability of the decisions reached”.
I believe that children’s rights and procedural values such as transparency, inclusiveness, responsiveness, reasonableness, and accountability would be invaluable in guiding and providing a clear rationale for decisions on access to education for specific cohorts of children.
For all its painful challenges, the pandemic presents an opportunity to put in place a framework that can be successfully applied to a range of emergency circumstances, therefore providing education partners, including children and their parents, with the clarity and security they need to go forward through whatever fog has descended on that day.
As we muddle through the Covid-19 era, yearning for a return to something close to normal, we should not squander this occasion to put in place a robust plan for the times ahead where it is anything but normal.