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Opinion: 'I'm worried about the kids who are stepping over needles and broken bottles to get to school'

Dublin youth worker Declan Keenan says Covid has set their work back extensively and many children are paying the price.

Declan Keenan

Updated Jun 9th 2021, 2:45 PM

AFTER A LONG year and four months we are at last beginning to step out of the shadow of Covid-19. Things are beginning to open up. More people are getting back to work. There is a real hope that schools and colleges, when they open up again in September, might resemble what they used to before March 2020.

Covid has had an impact on each and every one of us. We certainly won’t forget it and it will no doubt be the start of many conversations and stories in years to come. Imagine the number of times you’ll hear “do you remember during Covid when …”

But, for some – and particularly for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds like we work within the centre of Dublin – Covid may not be so easily consigned to a nostalgic memory or story.

If we don’t take action now as communities, as a country, the pandemic could prove to be a generational timebomb for many of these kids.

The long months of lockdown, the isolation that many have endured, often in over-crowded or chaotic homes, the digital disadvantage they have had to deal with, and disconnect from school and services like ours have all taken a really heavy toll.

Living in chaos

Imagine, through an accident of birth and geography – that you were born into the carnage and chaos of gangland violence on your doorstep? You are still expected to get proper sleep; get up the next morning; have your homework ready, and try to get on with your day and perform like your peers?

No child, no matter how resilient, no matter how stable his or her family is, can survive that without harm and hurt.

But now, Covid has made this task even more difficult. New research by the Irish Youth Foundation with Amárach Research called Generation Pandemic: Futures are on the Line shows that the majority (80%) of youth workers like me are really concerned about the long term mental health fall-out of Covid for the young people we work with.

What makes us doubly concerned is that mental health services for young people were already stretched to breaking point pre-Covid, with psychologists admitting that many young people were already over medicated due simply to the strain on the services.

We are worried that we are looking at a whole generation of children and young people lacking the social skills and the resilience they need to succeed. We are concerned about the increased risk of education drop-off, the possibility of increased anti-social behaviour or the lure of criminality in their communities – we have unfortunately witnessed that violent behaviour has increased amongst young people through the lockdown period.
We are also concerned about the difficulties they may encounter with accessing adequate training or entering or re-entering the workforce.

One of the strangest things about this year is how easy it has been for some children to stay out of school once it re-opened. If you ring up and say you’re sick, the school, because of Covid, is understandably relieved that you haven’t put others at risk. For many, this has given greater licence to stay away for prolonged periods.

For others, they have been forced to stay out of school because they have been in close contact with a suspected Covid case. I know one girl who has had to self-isolate three times because of this.

Children at risk

The kids and teenagers I’m really worried about most are the quieter ones – the ones who may have to step over the needles and the broken bottles to get to school, the ones who have to face down the anti-social behaviour or the bullying at the local shop when they pass by in their uniforms, or the ones who may have to get themselves up and out in the morning. These are the majority, not the minority or exception as too often portrayed.

It’s not that I’m not also worried about the high-risk young people in our community, but very often these higher-risk kids are “red-flagged” by state services – they are being followed up on, they are more likely to be on the radar or a system.

But for those who have had to struggle with doing their homework on a mobile phone maybe, or who only had access to patchy pay-as-you-go wifi because it’s too much money to pay for a monthly bill-pay, they are unlikely to be on anyone’s list.

Before Covid-19 many of these same quiet children and young people had the positive influence of youth organisations, community groups, sports or after school services like ours. They came to us for homework, a bite to eat after school maybe, a reassuring word and a bit of direction, a game of football.

Then, Covid closed us all down. Almost overnight, years of transformative work by youth projects with vulnerable children were wiped out. While smart subsidies were put in place to keep employers connected to employees, no such support was there to keep vulnerable young people connected to their lifelines. We have done everything we can to keep in touch with the young people in our area, but online isn’t nearly as effective or engaging as in-person work. You can’t have a kick-about to get away from things on a Zoom.

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A difference can be made

While I’ve painted a very negative picture so far, it’s not all doom and gloom. The huge majority of young people I work with have aspirations and plans for their futures. They don’t want Covid to stop them.

There is definite action we can take to help them reach their goals and to undo the damage that Covid has caused, and worryingly, may continue to cause.

We need three vital things.

Firstly, more safe, flexible spaces where children and young people can begin to re-connect with us and we can re-connect with them. We need resources to allow for more collaboration between schools and community groups. And finally, we need more targeted supports, with an increased focus on out of school support and one-to-one after school support in particular.

The youth of our nation have already been informed that they are going to be the first generation to be worse off than the generation before them. We will really need the government to step up and give a clear message of hope that they are both needed and wanted in our society.

We really have to show that we have a plan for them and that we are going to work as hard as we can to make their future something worth looking forward to. Because it’s far too high a price for them – and all of us – to pay if Generation Pandemic becomes Generation Lost.

Declan Keenan has been a youth and community worker in Dublin’s North West Inner-city since 1988. He is founder of the Just Ask (After-School Klub), which operates in two locations in Dublin’s North West Inner City. Just ASK is supported by the Irish Youth Foundation.

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Declan Keenan

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