Demand schools are made safe — reject mass infection of the young

By Ruth Coppinger, secondary school teacher and parent 

With schools reopening, many parents and young people will no doubt be delighted. We all want an end to the pandemic and the physical and mental toll it’s taking on young people. Keeping schools open as long as health and safety permits is a social necessity, both for students themselves and for working parents. 

Why then has the government done so little to make schools safe? And in its rush to reopen the economy, why is the threat to unvaccinated and unmasked young people being ignored?

This will be the first time schools reopen with Delta as the dominant variant and with most restrictions being lifted at the same time — offices, workplaces, public transport etc are being told to fully reopen. The Delta variant is more transmissible and has more serious health consequences for the young. Given that no real mitigation measures are in place in schools, a political decision seems to have been made to allow mass infection of children with Covid-19.

A very uncertain time 

After 18 months, we know masks, vaccines and ventilation can work against Covid — yet school students don’t have these, but still the government thinks all will be well. It seems much of the opposition in the Dáil does too, as Sinn Féin has noticeably made no criticisms or demands on this.

You wouldn’t think we had the highest number of Covid cases in the EU — during the summer when schools were off. Now, around 3,000 primary and 1,000 secondary schools will reopen. In some urban areas where case numbers are high, schools have 1,000 pupils or more.

NPHET will also be disbanded. While many criticisms may be made of NPHET, it is the only medical  oversight of the government and has held it in check on occasion. The new message from the political establishment is away from a public health emphasis to ‘personal responsibility’. These right-wing government TDs are hardly in a position to talk about ‘personal responsibility’ when we all know what happened with Golfgate and Merriongate

Children and young teenagers can’t exercise much personal responsibility inside school, or insist windows are opened or air monitors put in place. They rely on adults.

Still a real, dangerous threat 

Ministers have been effectively gaslighting and making out there will always be people who are ‘nervous’. 

What is the real situation in schools? Yes, teachers and SNAs will mostly have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, which is a hugely positive change on last year. But students have not! In secondary school, a proportion of students will have had one vaccine shot. Primary children have had none and don’t wear masks. Staff being exposed to unvaccinated and unmasked children indoors is still risky for them.

Delta is twice as transmissible as the original virus. Vaccines may only reduce transmission by 50 to 60%. The government has given the wrong impression that the virus isn’t that dangerous for young people. They’ve misused figures. 

Long Covid is serious for young people. It’s a multiorgan syndrome with diverse symptoms. Even Joe Biden has called it a “disability” in the US. An estimated 4,400 under-18s currently have it in Ireland. It can take months, even a year, from the quality of life of a young person. It has huge costs for parents giving up work. One in every hundred children who got  sick with previous Covid strains was hospitalised, never mind with Delta. In the US, the pediatric hospitalisation rate is 0.9 to 1.9%. 

Risking children’s health 

We have to reject the mass infection of young people as a government strategy. 

The government Covid plan for schools is the same as last year, with the one addition of air monitors — portable, not for every room and they haven’t yet materialised in schools, which have opened already. The recommended levels for air quality are also nearly twice that of the UK.

The Independent Scientific Advocacy Group, which includes such public health experts as Dr Gabriel Scally (used by the government to clean up the cervical check scandal) outlined a scenario for what could happen in a sample school in autumn / winter using NPHET figures:

  • taking average class size as 24, with only one class for every level of primary school (most schools have much more), would be 192 children. At current infection rates of 0.3%, there’s an 8% chance of a group of 30 people having one person who’ll spread the virus, and a 50% chance a group of 250 people will have one person spreading (a 40% chance in the school of 192).

Without proper mitigation measures (no masks, vaccine,  air filters, testing etc):

  • the majority of susceptible children could be infected within 2-3 months
  • 2 from this school could be hospitalized (1 in 100 who get sick)
  • 13 to 29 of the 192 children (if all unvaccinated and infected ) could suffer Long Covid.

Yet the cost of proper mitigation measures is estimated by Professor Orla Hegarty to be €10 per child. Does the government place enough value on young people’s lives to spend this?

What’s needed

Teachers unions, parents and young people should come together to demand this government invest so that:

  • high quality masks, FFP2, are supplied by the Department of Education. This should include primary children over 5 (medical exemptions);
  • emphasise clean air, not just clean hands: ventilation and HEPA filtration.  Every classroom should have a filter and CO2 monitor;
  • Create more space by drastically reducing class sizes. Invest the necessary resources to hire more teachers and SNAs. This will hugely benefit students who’ve lost out, particularly in working-class communities;
  • full transparency re cases and isolation of anyone at risk;
  • We need mass, regular testing in schools, colleges and universities 
  • Provide vaccines for children under 12, when a vaccine is approved
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