Dáil debates

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic

9:22 am

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour) | Oireachtas source

It is fair to say that school communities around Ireland are this morning grappling with another chaotic management of messaging and leadership from the Department of Education. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I are in absolute agreement that it is incredibly important that schools remain open. It is profoundly damaging for children when schools are closed. We know that when they were closed it was very difficult for students, particularly those in disadvantaged areas and those with additional needs, to get the type of educational services they needed.

For the past 18 months, the Department and the Government have been saying, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe". Last month, I stood here and asked the Minister and the Government to stop saying that, but they continue to repeat that schools are safe. Last week, we heard a new line from NPHET, that is, that it never said that schools are safe. Having taken five days to consider what NPHET has suggested in terms of mask-wearing for nine-year-olds, from third class upwards in primary schools, we get an overnight diktat from the Department of Education, delivered with all of the subtlety and compassion of a gas bill. This morning, principals have to police mask-wearing by nine-year-olds, from third class upwards, without any sense of what the legal implications are if a parent was to refuse, no sense of a lead-in period and an absolute absence of commentary, guidance or leadership from the Minister.

All we needed last night was a video message or other communication from the political leader of education in Ireland acknowledging that this change is difficult, telling parents that they are part of the solution and asking them to talk to their children about wearing masks - children have seen adults wearing masks - and telling them that the reason for that is we are trying to make sure that people do not get sick, that they can help us in that regard, that they should not feel anxious or worried, that we will get through this together and that they are part of the solution. Instead, we got a classic, soulless communication, a follow-up to a communication from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, and NPHET to each individual school stating that this change was required to come into effect today. After everything schools have been through, the Minister being asked last April to do something around antigen testing, but doing nothing about it until this week, all of the failures of communication heretofore and the Minister and Government parroting the line, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", they have given principals and school communities 16 hours to get their act together to enforce a diktat, a requirement from the Department of Education on face mask wearing among, potentially, very anxious children, with zero compassion and zero leadership from that Department.

The Government has been described as a bad debs committee. That is the best description I can come up with this morning. I would like the Minister to respond to that and to speak not just to me, but to take this opportunity to speak to the children of Ireland who may see this contribution later today.


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