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What impact has lockdown had on vulnerable school children?

Broadcaster Evelyn O’Rourke reports on the impact that lockdown has had on schoolchildren in Ireland.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reporting on the impact of Covid lockdowns on schoolchildren in areas of disadvantage for RTÉ Radio 1 and boy, have I learnt a few lessons!

Firstly, I was blown away by the imagination, commitment and concern shown by the teams at schools to vulnerable pupils – both at primary and post-primary level. I met home school community liaison officers who have stood in reluctant teenagers bedrooms and encouraged them to go back to school.

And there is some good news: schools have done extraordinary things to support pupils which families have really appreciated and some pupils have really thrived during lockdown.

Generally, we assume that children prefer to be at school but I found it interesting that some pupils told me that they preferred online schooling; they liked the control and were less anxious learning at home. They enjoyed the break from the school environment.

For most others, it was a tumultuous experience though.

I was repeatedly told of serious mental health issues for young people brought on by lockdown. Anxiety, eating disorders and serious gaps in mental health services were all frequently mentioned.

Consultant Paediatrician Louise Kiely painted a bleak picture for me about the rise in presentations to A&E for children suffering mental heath issues and how her colleagues are overwhelmed by the gravity of the cases they’re seeing.

To learn online, you had to be able to be online, but the digital divide had serious consequences.

One of the impressive schools I reported from was Ramsgrange Community School in rural Wexford where 70% of pupils had access to WiFi, but 30% didn’t. How do you study for your leaving cert if you can’t even download the class plan?

In Donaghmede in Dublin, at The Donahies community school, principal Peter Keohane pointed out to me that the school suddenly had to pay monthly contracts for dongles out of their precious school budget to give pupils internet access.

Even more sobering, the Tipperary Rural Traveller Project offices told me 57% of their boys leave primary school and subsequently drop out permanently of education.

They have a learning programme where they help children with homework but due to Covid disruptions they haven’t been able to have face to face sessions in months and they too are worried.

I was told again and again that people are concerned about this year’s junior cert cohort in particular. They’ve only done five and a half months months in-school education since March last year and experts say that getting those pupils to return in Sept is a real focus of their attention.

So after weeks of these discussions, what have I learnt?

Well, DEIS schools are vitally important for the wide range of supports they offer from feeding pupils with free meals to school completion programmes. When the schools are closed there are fewer ‘eyes on the child’ was another observation I was told a number of times.

Talking to the school communities, it appears that they are looking for more help. They need extra counsellors, technology supports, and to keep their doors open as much as is safe to do so. Vulnerable children are safe, fed and supported in DEIS schools, and schools take that responsibility seriously.

Everyone I spoke to hopes that the worst is behind us and that they can look forward to some return to normality from September.

I’ll be back to talk to them again then but for now huge thanks to all the schools and experts who shared their stories with me! I enjoyed each and every conversation both and off the record…
Updated / Thursday, 17 Jun 2021 14:37