Cianan Brennan: Was it really necessary to shut schools for two days?

We're led to believe that the closing of schools in the past two days was on foot of safety concerns due to Storm Barra. Cianan Brennan thinks there was a different reason for schools closing on the second day
Cianan Brennan: Was it really necessary to shut schools for two days?

Day two of Storm Barra at Sandycove in Dublin. The second day of school closures feels a bit more problematic. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Just before 10pm on Tuesday, the Departments of Education and Children served up something of an unwanted surprise for parents in the capital.

Storm Barra, the windy tour de force which had already wreaked havoc on the west and south-west coasts, had been raised to category Orange level by Met Éireann in Dublin once more, meaning schools and childcare services across the city would remain shut for an additional day.

The online reaction was visceral. Some parents were outraged, others chagrined. Plenty of others were of the opinion that child safety is paramount, and any irritation with the edict would signify a contempt for same.

As is generally the case, a grey middle is where the truth lies. All opinions are valid. Here’s mine.

As it happens I was walking in Dublin for some of Tuesday morning for work, and a little of the afternoon for childcare.

I am far from a lover of extreme weather, but the worst I can say of the storm at those particular points is that the day was a bit windy (I’m aware there are plentiful examples of storm damage around the city). Not a nice day, not one you would want to be out in, but nevertheless, weather which is eminently possible to function fully alongside.

Still, the schools were closed on foot of safety concerns, and that is totally fair. The second day of closure feels a bit more problematic, however. For starters, the weather warning for Dublin expired at 7am, well in advance of families getting their little ones out the door.

Then there is how the news was communicated. For most parents of tiny people, 10pm is well into time-added-on as far as a day is concerned. It is far from beyond the realms of possibility that many parents would have woken on Wednesday to the news of a no-school day.

That doesn’t feel acceptable to me. A category Red warning throughout the day, yes, that I can understand. But with the warning that was actually issued, surely an urging to mind ourselves was enough? 

You can’t help but feel that the Departments were pushed into a corner by the decision made the day before - that is, if you shut for an orange warning once, you have to do it again.

Not to be too ‘when I were a lad’ about things, but, well, when I were a lad the only days I can remember schools being closed were down to snow, and they were utterly infrequent. We live in a country in which nasty winter weather is a given. Will this new system of ‘schools closed — safety first’ carry through into spring and beyond one wonders?

Leaving that aside though, the real problem for me is that the idea the decision was taken from a humanitarian perspective doesn’t really stack up when you consider other recent approaches to child welfare by the Department of Education.

Schools and Covid

Like all Irish parents, my wife and I have been living and working in an atmosphere of permanent uncertainty regarding Covid in terms of child absences from both early learning and creche. In the past five weeks our two children have spent far more time out of care than in it. 

Seven PCR tests and countless antigens have been taken, without a positive to date thankfully. I love my kids but the juggling act is not the enjoyable side of parenting. It also amounts to paying a small fortune for care that isn’t being accessed. It’s incredibly frustrating.

For the past three months the Government and public health told us endlessly that schools were, shudder, “safe environments”.

Pleas for added mitigation measures in schools, most notably HEPA filters —  the cost of installing which would seem negligible compared with other State pandemic expenses — were repeatedly rebuffed as unnecessary, despite the Government’s own expert group on the matter recommending their usage, and that 10 months ago.

No, windows open in schools come hell or high water was the strategy. Winter came, and now children all over the country are sitting in temperatures of 10 degrees celsius or less on a daily basis, considerably lower than the legal temperature limit for sedentary work. The lack of planning for same was exemplary.

Day two of Storm Barra at Dun Laoghaire harbour. Were the two days off a mini ‘Covid circuit breaker’ for schools? Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Day two of Storm Barra at Dun Laoghaire harbour. Were the two days off a mini ‘Covid circuit breaker’ for schools? Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Meanwhile, schools with Covid outbreaks were routinely told to remain open by the Department or face the consequences. Indeed, you couldn’t get the Government to shut the schools for love nor money despite a killer pandemic being on the loose. 

Until the storm arrived that is. So spare me the idea that a heightened sense of vigilance for child safety is behind the decision to close for a second day. What seems more likely to me is that legal concerns regarding buildings with all windows open during gale-force winds might be behind the closure. 

If that were the case it makes the lack of mitigation all the more galling. Likewise, the idea that the two days off represents a mini ‘Covid circuit breaker’ for schools without the need to acknowledge same doesn’t seem overly far-fetched to me, even if it were just a happy coincidence. I asked the Department of Education about both those possibilities: “The decision to close was not in any way related to Covid or ventilation,” was the response.

Or maybe two years of Covid has rendered me far too cynical and grumpy for my own good. Even if that were the case, could you blame me? Christmas can’t come quickly enough — we need the good cheer.

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