A new campaign group has warned that the Government's plans to reopen schools on a phased basis from March 1, fail to sufficiently prioritise those children who are most in need.
The #ChildrensFuturesIRL Group is made up of AsIAm, Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance, Inclusion Ireland and the National Parents Council Primary. It insists that the reopening plans have not taken into account "the most disproportionately affected", such as vulnerable children and those with additional needs.
The Government has outlined plans that would see junior infants to second class return to school on March 1. The campaign group emphasised that this plan came after it published a legal opinion by barristers, Alan D.P Brady and James Rooney, which found the blanket closure of schools to be in breach of the right to an education, as guaranteed by the Constitution of Ireland, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
According to Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council Primary, it was "identified and agreed weeks ago that vulnerable children in mainstream classes needed to be prioritised in their return to school".
"Countries in other jurisdictions have provided in-school education and support throughout the pandemic for vulnerable children. It is unconscionable that these children with additional needs or experiencing other challenges wouldn't be the first to be prioritised in the reopening of our mainstream classes," she commented.
According to Adam Harris of autism support group, AsIAm, children with additional needs "are conspicuous by their absence in the plans coming out of Government".
He said that the Government is again prioritising academic attainment over those who are in greatest need.
"Having consistently told us that children with additional needs are a priority, this Government is now performing a U-turn, and at a time when other European countries have been able to keep their schools open. The majority of our children are still out of school and unable to participate in remote lessons. This is not good enough, and frankly a dereliction of duty," he commented.
According to Lorraine Dempsey of Inclusion Ireland, the negative impact of school closures on children with special educational needs and disabilities "is undeniable".
"Plans outlined by the Taoiseach do not change this one iota for some of the most vulnerable. The plans do not resolve these issues, which means they're still not meeting their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It's not okay to leave some children behind," she said.
Suzanne Connolly of Barnardos emphasised the importance of finding new ways to make up for the loss of educational attainment.
"We are still looking for a strong and well-resourced recovery plan in place to support children's social, emotional and educational needs," she noted.
Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance welcomed the return to school for some children, but added that it is leaving the most vulnerable behind.
"The Government needs to prioritise those most impacted by the lockdown and where online learning is inadequate," she said.
The #ChildrensFuturesIRL campaign has recommended a number of urgent actions, including:
-Reopening special schools immediately - if the State is to meet constitutional obligations, it must provide fulltime education for children with special educational needs
-Reopening all schools and keeping them open - schools must reopen on a phased basis as a matter of priority, in line with public health advice, and the State must develop an action plan agreed with education partners to prevent future closures
-Addressing the loss of learning that has occurred over the last 12 months by developing and providing a suite of interventions for all children, but in particular for vulnerable groups of children to catch up. This could include funding and resources to provide summer programmes.
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