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No More School Closures, says Children’s Commissioner

23 Oct 2020

Entering the second week of the half term extension, Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People calls on the NI Executive to protect children’s wellbeing and their right to education by making sure there are no further school closures beyond 30th October.

“The evidence tells us the risk of this virus seriously affecting our children is exceptionally small and they are more likely to suffer serious consequences by not being in school. Being at school decreases inequalities, increases life chances and improves physical and mental health.

“Therefore, I can see no reason why this or any future school break should be extended for any length of time. If the issue in relation to schools is outside the school gates, we must tackle that without disrupting our children’s education and we must also get smarter at dealing with identified cases of Covid in schools.”

Outlining steps to make sure schools remain open, the Commissioner said,

“Children and young people’s education and wellbeing cannot be allowed to suffer further as a result of the Pandemic, particularly as it is becoming increasingly apparent that it will be with us for the rest of this school year. Therefore, we need:

  • Rapid testing of pupils and teachers so that any confirmed cases and their close contacts can isolate at home without the need to send entire classes or year groups home.
  • Assurances about the quality of online learning if a pupil contracts the virus or has to self-isolate.
  • Clear monitoring by the Public Health Agency (PHA), Department of Education (DE) and the Education Authority to ensure all appropriate steps have been taken by schools to minimise the risk of transmission. 
  • Action and clear and timely communications to children and families on the implementation of any further measures necessary to limit the spread of the virus. For example, outside school gates and on home to school transport.
  • Readily available supply of substitute teachers to replace those who are off or isolating.
  • Ongoing release of data from the PHA and DE in relation to cases in schools and further data to include trends by year group, the number of pupils sent home to self-isolate for 14 days as a result of a positive case or being identified as a close contact and their level of engagement with learning at home.”

The Commissioner highlighted concerns about the impact of school closures on specific groups of children and young people,

“This Pandemic has affected children in unimaginable ways and we are beginning to get an understanding of this following figures issued by the Department of Health[1] this week. 75 more children in care, 113 more children on the child protection register and other increases in referrals. We can reasonably conclude that the lockdown has placed significant stress on some families.

“Children with special educational needs and those attending special schools have already been gravely affected by the closure of schools and other vital supports during the pandemic. Further closures could be catastrophic for these children and their families.

“Young people studying for external exams such as GCSEs and A levels also continue to be adversely affected by school closures and periods of self-isolation. I look forward to seeing the proposed contingency plans from all external exam bodies and call on government to make sure this process has the confidence of young people and educators. I also reiterate my call to all schools who intend to use the Transfer Test to admit pupils for their 2021 intake. Now is the time to choose an alternative process in the best interests of our children.”

Concluding, Koulla Yiasouma said,

“I will continue to engage with educational stakeholders including the Minister for Education. We all must make a concerted, collaborative effort to ensure the safe and sustainable opening of our schools; everyone must continue to play their part in helping to contain the virus and crucially, make sure our children and young people can fully realise their right to an education during this Pandemic.

“The NI Executive must prioritise children's rights and make sure their education and wellbeing is at the forefront of any future decisions about interventions to manage the spread of the virus.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors

  • For further information or to bid for interviews with the Commissioner please email Communications@niccy.org or text/phone 07917 544 177.

[1] https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/ni-childrens-figures-during-covid-19-21-10-2020.pdf

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