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TD warns that children's lives are being put at risk during storms

Education Minister Ruairí Quinn admitted that the current advice system for schools may need to be updated.

Storm damage
Storm damage
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

EDUCATION MINISTER RUAIRÍ Quinn has said that the system under which schools decide whether or not to close during bad weather needs to be updated.

Quinn said the process has not improved in line with weather alert systems over the years.

Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan raised the issue in the Dáil this week. He said action needed to be taken to prevent another scenario such as the one where schools remained open during Storm Darwin on 12 February last.

“It is an issue of health and safety relating to one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, namely, children,” O’Donovan remarked.

There is anecdotal evidence of gates being taken off their piers and sent hurling through the air in the direction of parents collecting their children from school and of trees falling on cars. How much of this was avoidable?

“Although a man did lose his life while clearing up in the immediate aftermath of the storm, it was very fortunate that nobody died on the day itself. Indeed, based on what we saw unfolding on our television screens, it is a miracle there was not widespread loss of life and injury.”

‘Luckily nobody was killed’

O’Donovan said that Met Éireann would have known “24 hours in advance that Storm Darwin, a full-blown hurricane, was due to hit the west coast”.

“For some reason, however, a decision was either taken or not taken which led to schools opening that morning, thereby putting children, parents and staff at an absolutely inordinate risk. In some cases, at the height of the storm, text messages were being sent out by schools to parents asking them to collect their children.

Luckily nobody was killed but will we be able to say that in the future? We need proper and robust protocols in place to ensure we are not putting vulnerable people at unnecessary risk.

The deputy said there was “clearly … no joined-up plan for how vulnerable groups like children would be protected in these types of circumstances”. He stated that the Department of Education offered “little advice other than that schools should provide their details to the local authority”.

O’Donovan stressed that a single protocol was needed, rather than leaving it up to individual principals as to whether or not they should close their school. He added that information needed to be “communicated in a timely and effective manner” such as a text alert service when a red weather warning is issued.

‘Sudden and localised’

Quinn said that representatives from the Department of Education were engaging with the government’s task force on emergency planning, which co-ordinates the overall response to storms.

He said they were due to meet with the management bodies for primary and post-primary schools to review the issue and identify what measures should be put in place.

“It is not the function of the Department to instruct a school to close for whatever reason,” Quinn noted.

He added that the type of bad weather that hit the country in January and February can be difficult to deal with due to its “sudden and localised nature”.

Quinn remarked that principals need guidance as to what they should do in such situations and recalled one incident where a principal in Kerry telephoned her diocesan education secretary to see what she should do after part of the roof of her school came off in a storm.

Water Flooding Chaos Scenes Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

The Education Minister said that as 93 per cent of primary schools are under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church it might be appropriate to have a “proper discussion” about the issue with the general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, Rev Dr Tom Deenihan.

“If the weather is bad, the CPSMA should make a decision and contact the principals and the boards of management to give principals the authority to notify parents in sufficient time that it is not safe to bring their children to school,” Quinn stated.

Deenihan told TheJournal.ie that the CPSMA was “certainly willing to engage” with any such discussions. He said that no principals had raised the subject with him personally but he was aware that it was something many of them “grapple with”.

He noted that local authorities and Met Éireann would be the bodies most suited to give advice to schools, adding that it was often “difficult to send kids home once they’re already at school if their parents are at work”.

“We welcome the conversation and are willing to participate fully. Obviously boards of management would be looking to State agencies to give them clear advice,” he added.

Read: More flood warnings as Atlantic storm makes its way to Irish shores

Read: How did poor old Charles Darwin get dragged into the nation’s storm coverage?

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Órla Ryan

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