NI Children’s Commissioner | ‘If school closures necessary, tougher safeguards required’
Speaking ahead of the NI Assembly meeting on Thursday regarding school closures, Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, said:
“Rising figures of positive Covid cases are becoming increasingly concerning and if recommended by medical and scientific officers, I would reluctantly support the closure of some schools or school years, but only if tougher safeguards can be put in place for vulnerable children.”
She explained, “I expect schools to remain open for the estimated 30,000 children who are deemed vulnerable here, along with the children of key workers. If these children are not engaging in education, unlike the first lockdown, there needs to be a more proactive approach from schools, Educational Welfare Service and Social Services to check on and encourage those children and families to participate in education.
“I would also expect Special Schools to be given all the support they need to stay open for all their children. I welcome Minister Weir’s announcement before Christmas that there will not be any further weakening of duties for authorities to provide the necessary support for children with special educational needs.
“Mental health services must continue and, where required, increase and be delivered in a way that meets the existing need and growing rise of children and young people with mental health difficulties.”
Speaking about pupils in Exam years, Koulla said, “In the absence of exams being cancelled, GCSE and A’level students, where it is at all possible, should still be able to attend school. However, we cannot forget every other child’s right to full education. The lessons from the first lockdown, again, need to be put in place to make sure schools are properly resourced to support children to learn from home, and that ALL children have the necessary technology and other supports to be able to access an effective education.
“The most recent Covid figures add further weight to the calls for the cancellation of the Transfer Tests.”
Concluding, the Commissioner explained quicker testing and tracking and prioritising teaching and non-teaching staff for vaccination was necessary to support this limited and the longer term, full reopening of schools.
“Principals should not have to shoulder the burden of tracking and tracing close contacts in schools, their priority should be the effective education of our children. Greater support for schools is urgently required to enable quick testing and tracking.
“Whilst news of approval and roll out of a further vaccination is welcome, it is concerning teachers and other school staff are not currently in the priority groups. We need a healthy and COVID-free workforce to keep all our schools open and our children in education.”