Covid-19: Expert calls for 'honesty' about decision to keep schools open

86% of cases, according to official statistics, among 5-14-year-olds have occurred since the beginning of September, when schools reopened for the first time since the onset of the pandemic
Covid-19: Expert calls for 'honesty' about decision to keep schools open

Schools are currently noted as the fifth-highest settings for instances of Covid since data began recording in March, despite having only reopened in September.

The author of a new report regarding the rates of transmission of Covid-19 among schoolchildren has called for “transparency of all data” from the health authorities with regard to the prevalence of the coronavirus in Irish schools.

The report, which has been seen by the Irish Examiner, was delivered to Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan earlier this week with a request that he bring it to the attention of the public health authorities.

It notes that 86% of cases, according to official statistics, among 5-14-year-olds have occurred since the beginning of September, when schools reopened for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

It also underlines that a large number of conditions are not listed on the HSE’s very-high risk categorisation of illnesses which merit the provision of remote learning, with examples including chronic kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.

While the analysis states it is not calling for schools to be closed permanently, nevertheless children who are medically vulnerable or live with people who are such, but who do not qualify under the very-high risk threshold, “should be given the option to choose to stay home from school during this pandemic . . . without ramification or negative consequences”.

“If you’re going to keep schools open that’s fair enough, but at least be honest with us about your decisions,” Olive O’Connor, an independent healthcare advocate and author of the analysis, said.

The report notes the reproductive, or R number, in 131 countries had been found to have reduced “significantly within a shorter timeframe” when schools closed, according to a study published in renowned independent science journal The Lancet.

It also notes the assertion of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) that the use of masks is not a sufficient requirement for not considering students or teachers in schools as being close contacts of a confirmed case.

Schools are currently noted as the fifth-highest settings for instances of the virus since data began recording in March, despite having only reopened in September. Nevertheless, official Irish public health advice is that just 2% of outbreaks can be attributed to schools, where transmission is judged to be low. 

Ms O’Connor has called for the criteria used to evaluate a household cluster to be definitively published by the health authorities.

Solutions to the issue proposed by the report include the rolling out of already-in-place remote learning to high-risk children or those living with people in those categories, high-risk teachers providing classes remotely from home, high-risk teachers at home providing remote learning to high-risk students, also at home, and the expansion of the home tuition programme.

“The schools are open, that’s a decision and that’s fine. But there’s a need to be explicit as to what the risks and benefits of that are,” said Professor Anthony Staines, public health expert with DCU’s school of nursing and one of the report’s two reviewers.

“The risks don’t seem to be huge. But they’re not zero either,” he said.


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