The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland has said it would be an “unacceptable risk” for schools to reopen as planned, without additional safety measures being put in place.
In a statement this evening, the ASTI said it would be proposing a “delayed and staggered” approach to reopening when it meets Public Health officials and representatives from the Department of Education tomorrow.
The Association is calling for updated risk assessments to be presented before schools reopen later this week.
It comes after the Association’s Standing Commitee met today to assess the situation on the reopening of schools, and heard members unease over the health and safety of teachers and students.
“The ASTI is deeply concerned that the Minister for Education may reopen schools without putting in place additional measures necessary to safeguard the health and safety of students and school staff. This would constitute an unacceptable risk in the context of the Omicron wave,” it said.
It added: “There is uncertainty regarding the impact in schools of this significantly more transmissible variant.”
ASTI President Eamon Dennehy said that the priority “must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place to protect all concerned”.
The Association said it will be asking Minister for Education Norma Foley to consider making antigen tests available for all parents and children prior to going to schools, supplementary to the existing testing and tracing system in place.
It is also calling for HEPA filtration units to be rolled-out to schools, saying it “beggars belief that almost two years into this pandemic this basic facility is not in place where necessary”.
Govt rapporteur highlights ‘negative impacts’ of school closures
Meanwhile, the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection has said that school closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have had a significant impact on children beyond just their academic development.
Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One programme, Professor Conor O’Mahony said during previous waves of infection, the country had “pretty long school closures by international standards”.
“There were children in Ireland who missed between 90 and 110 school days between the two major lockdowns.
“What we learned during that time, and what we learned from the evidence internationally is that lengthy school closures like that don’t just impact on the child’s right to education.”
He continued: “The impact on children is not just missing a few weeks of classes and having to catch up on that later on. There are multiple impacts on children that we’ve seen documented in Ireland and internationally of school closures, including on their mental health, including on their social skills, their general development, and their recreational opportunities.”
Prof O’Mahony said that in some of the more extreme cases, significant issues have arisen around children at risk who find themselves forced to spend lengthy times in unsafe home environments and exposed to abuse, neglect or domestic violence.
Child protection referrals are reduced because teachers are a key source of information for social services, he said.
“And so the ability of social workers to identify children at risk and to respond to them is compromised by school closures,” he added.
In a series of earlier posts on social media, Prof O’Mahony had said school closures were “not a simple trade-off between education and health”.
“Children (and the adults in their lives) have a right to health, so we need to take all practicable measures to mitigate the spread of Covid in schools.
“But a wide range of other rights are adversely affected by school closures. We know this from 2020 and early 2021. Most obviously, the right to education suffered.”
Chapter 2 of my 2021 Annual Report as Special Rapporteur on Child Protection (due for publication in January) documents the harm caused to children by school closures and lockdowns. This is multi-faceted, and has been documented in Ireland and internationally. (1/11)
— Conor O’Mahony (@ConorUCCLaw) January 2, 2022
Prof O’Mahony added: “Teachers worked tirelessly to deliver online learning, but it couldn’t replace the real thing – especially for children with special needs, and for marginalised communities with poor access to technology.
“The lack of social interaction and recreational opportunities impacted on the right to development and the right to play.
“School closures protected physical health, but caused significant damage to the mental health of many children (particularly adolescents).”
He advised: “For some children, the right to protection from violence was seriously compromised.
“Forced to stay in unsafe homes for extended periods, they were exposed to direct harm from abuse and neglect, and/or indirect harm from witnessing domestic abuse (which increased hugely).
“Schools are a key source of child protection referrals, so school closures disrupted the flow of information to social services – compromising their ability to identify children at risk and respond to their needs.”
Prof O’Mahony continued: “The evidence consistently shows that the impact of school closures was not evenly spread; it fell disproportionately on the most marginalised and disadvantaged children.
“I see people advocating for schools to remain closed in January. I can’t help thinking that those people’s position is informed by a view that children in their families/communities will be fine.
“Maybe they will – but a lot of other children won’t be.
“Again, this is an argument for the best possible mitigations, and not for the status quo.
“My point is that school closures are not a simple trade-off between education and health. The negative impacts are wider and deeper than missing a few weeks of classes.”
Prof O’Mahony said his 2021 Annual Report as Special Rapporteur on Child Protection – due for publication later this month – will document in more detail the the “harm” caused to children by school closures and lockdowns.
Yesterday, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said he expects schools, crèches and colleges will reopen on schedule despite the rise in cases of Covid-19.