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Mother of schoolchildren: 'Who, exactly, is advocating for children at the talks this week?'

Mother of three, Rita Lovett, shares her concerns over the pace at which decisions are being made about the re-opening of schools.

Rita Lovett

WHO IS SPEAKING publicly for schoolchildren and their right to an education? All other areas of life, from business to sport to healthcare to travel, have spokespersons setting out their positions during this extremely difficult time, but there appears to be no one speaking for all schoolchildren.

We are told that talks between unions and government are down to the wire on schools re-opening, but I want to know who is the voice of children at the table? Government has consistently said that education is a priority, but why have decisions around schools been effectively ‘frozen’ in the last couple of weeks?

It is deeply frustrating for parents, and students, watching the issue of schools being kicked about as a political football of late. Many families are at their wit’s end since Christmas, juggling homeschooling, work and childcare. I bet most parents in the country could freely admit at this stage that the effects of being out of school are really showing in their children.

Our society has worked hard to get the Covid numbers down and the signs are good, so now must be the time for imaginative thinking, and frankly, strong leadership. The closure of schools causes significant damage to children, a fact which has been recognised by a myriad of health professionals both in Ireland and throughout the world.

Why school matters

As a parent of two school children, I can readily see the damage being caused to them as a result of school closure. School closures will affect different children in different ways, but from speaking to very many other parents, I know that most children are feeling the adverse consequences of ongoing school closure.

School is hugely important for them, and its ongoing denial can only be detrimental. As a parent, it is upsetting and troubling to watch such damage being inflicted on children without any clear plan from the government as to how and when this will be remedied.

In a letter addressed to parents and guardians on 31 August 2020, then acting CMO, Dr Ronan Glynn said:

The importance of schools for the overall health and wellbeing of children cannot be overstated, and the risk of Covid-19 has been carefully weighed against the very real harm that can be caused by sustained school closures. Schools play a fundamental role in the social life of children; they are where they are educated, make friends, share interests, learn social skills like self-confidence and empathy and participate in sport and cultural activities.

School matters for children. It is hard to think of an area of a child’s life which school does not affect. This includes their intellectual, psychological, emotional, social, physical, spiritual and cultural development.

The denial of education to children affects them adversely in all of these areas, and, as this is occurring during a critical stage in their development, it has the capacity to do significant and long-lasting harm. 

In recent years, much has been made about protecting the mental health of children and young people, yet there seems to be a blithe indifference as to the significant and well-documented damage currently being done to them in this regard.

Whilst directing parents and children to websites for some well-meaning but bland information may be intended to help, in reality, it does little more than tick a box.

Education paused

Our children’s physical health is also being adversely affected by school closures, with the loss of physical education and sport provided by schools. Regular physical activity is critical to the wellbeing of children and important in combatting childhood obesity. It also encourages the early adoption of healthy patterns of behaviour which tend to persist for the remainder of a child’s life.

The value of school is immense in normal times. However, in these extraordinarily challenging times when children’s lives have been completely upended and when so much has already been taken from them, the ability to attend the familiar, supportive and well-structured environment of school is more important than ever.

It is almost inconceivable that school, and the community setting which it provides, would be taken away from children at this time.

Principals and teachers have made huge efforts to provide children with online learning. However, sitting alone for hours in a room in front of a computer (and even this isn’t available to every schoolchild) does not come anywhere close to replicating the school experience, and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it does.

Furthermore, it will prove increasingly difficult to keep children motivated and engaged with this type of learning and some of them will turn away from it altogether, never to return.

The closure of schools is particularly difficult for students in exam years. It is well known that exam years are stressful in themselves. However, such stress is now being hugely exacerbated by the inability to attend school and avail of its benefits, along with the enormous uncertainty as to what, if any, exam lies ahead. This is an intolerable pressure to place on children.

Schools, a priority?

Education is simply not like other services which exist in society. Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has said he considers it to be an essential service. One of the critical differences between education and other services is that education cannot be paused or suspended.

It is a finite and time-limited experience. Once a child misses First Class or Third Year, for example, or any part of these essential educational periods, it is simply gone forever. It can never be redone.

All the consequent benefits of that educational time are lost. Out of the last twelve months, schools have been closed, and education consequently denied to children, for nearly five months.

This is a significant time period in their educational experience which, despite the best efforts of principals and teachers, has simply been lost.

Whilst the closure of some areas of life may be compensated for monetarily, education is not one of those. It will simply be left to children to bear the deprivation and damage caused to them by the denial of their education.

It should also be noted that no stage of education is more or less valuable than another. It is why children are sent to school from Junior Infants all the way through to Sixth Year. Each year of their educational experience is essential in different ways, and there should be no suggestion of dispensing with some schooling or postponing it for longer periods than others. All schools need to reopen for all children.

Education has traditionally been protected and prioritised in this country, yielding, in the main, very positive results. However, in the last twelve months, it seems to have become accepted thinking that the closure of schools is okay.

Closing schools and denying children their education is not the answer to the public health threat caused by the pandemic. It simply damages another vulnerable group in society.

Every week schools remain closed compounds this damage. Due to the enormous and commendable efforts by school principals, teachers and boards of management throughout the country, it was possible to keep schools open from September – December 2020.

Understandable fears

Covid case numbers rose significantly over the Christmas period and new strains of the disease were detected. There’s no doubt that it has been a horrendous few weeks for this country, with so many fatalities from this disease. But the numbers are coming down, thankfully, and there is again a much safer working environment for principals and teachers.
If you can drive to and work in an essential construction site and you can go to work at a supermarket or do your shopping there, then what can be more important now than the welfare and education of the children of the country?

It has also been shown that children are not particular vectors for the disease, and, while schools were open, we were informed consistently by NPHET that transmission of the disease within schools remained at low and manageable levels.

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Yes, I accept the concerns about the ‘mass movement’ of people dropping off at school, but surely it’s now time for imagination to mitigate the risk? Should it be that other measures are required to further enhance the safety of schools, then the government must ensure that these are immediately provided.

So, who is speaking publicly for schoolchildren and their right to an education? Nobody. Therefore, it is incumbent on parents and guardians to do so. To protect children and prevent further damage from being done to them, the government must reopen all schools to all children immediately.

Rita Lovett is a mother of two secondary school children and one college student. She wrote this piece to share her concern about their welfare and that of all the hundreds of thousands of children through Ireland. 

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Rita Lovett

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