The Children’s Ombudsman has called on Government to keep schools open, saying closures cannot be the “default response” to surging Covid-19 cases.
Dr Niall Muldoon has urged leaders to explore all options and maintain their commitment to keeping schools open, warning that those most vulnerable are “disproportionately affected.”
It comes as secondary teachers’ union, the ASTI, called for a “a delayed and staggered reopening” of schools, which are set to return on Thursday.
The Department of Education, health officials, unions and school management bodies are meeting on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
Dr Muldoon said: “Closing schools and denying children access to in-person learning cannot be our default response.
“There is no doubt that the extremely high case numbers arising from the Omicron variant will be a challenge for everyone in the school community but, almost two years into the pandemic, we know the negative impact school closures have, not only on children’s learning, but on their social development.
“We also know that the most vulnerable children and those with special needs are disproportionately affected.”
Dr Muldoon backed the view of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Conor O’Mahony, who earlier this week said 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,” he added.
He said Government should ensure they have exhausted “every safeguard and mitigation” before turning to school closures.
In a statement on Monday, the ASTI warned that reopening schools without introducing additional safety measures would be an “unacceptable risk”.
The union has cited concerns around safety of school communities, staff shortages due to Covid, inadequate ventilation and a lack of Hepa air filtration devices and risks to immuno-compromised individuals.
“We will be asking the Minister to consider making antigen tests available for all parents and their children to be used prior to going to school as a supplement to the existing testing and tracing regime in second-level schools,” union president Eamon Dennehy said.
Every effort must be made to ensure that Ireland, like most other countries in Europe, reopens our schoolsDr Niall Muldoon, Children's Ombudsman
“The ASTI will also be calling for the speedy rollout of Hepa filtration units.
“It beggars belief that almost two years into this pandemic this basic facility is not in place where necessary.”
The ombudsman agreed that such measures should be taken, and said he had written to the Taoiseach before Christmas outlining his view that schools must remain open amid the threat of the Omicron variant.
“We should be trying to make this happen, rather than retreating and going back to the same measures that were relied on 12 months ago,” he said.
“Each school, be that primary or secondary, are dealing with their own individual problems and circumstances and we should support the principals to make the right decisions for their school.
“A one-size fits all approach is not in anyone’s interest.”
He added: “Although the increase in Covid-19 cases over the Christmas break has been frightening, it was not unforeseen.
“I wrote to the Taoiseach before the Christmas break in light of the warnings in relation to Omicron, and reinforced my view that keeping schools open is in the best interests of children.”
“Every effort must be made to ensure that Ireland, like most other countries in Europe, reopens our schools,” Dr Muldoon said.