Jess Casey: Better communication is key to the schools conundrum

Parents have been told schools are ‘controlled environments’ compared to playdates and sleepovers, but what difference does it make if they mix outside of school or at the panto, when they share a desk together five days a week?
Jess Casey: Better communication is key to the schools conundrum

Of course, there is a risk to children attending school during the pandemic, albeit a smaller one than an adult, as they have less of a chance of becoming seriously ill. Photo: Rollingnews.ie

This week the much-maligned catchphrase ‘schools are safe’ was finally, surely, put out to pasture.

This paper begged in January for the phrase to be retired because it is a bureaucratic catch-all, extracted and truncated from a complex message we’re still trying to wrap our heads around. There is nowhere here ‘safe’ from Covid-19 anymore really, bar being on your own in a sterilised bubble. 

People understand that going to the supermarket has a risk associated with it now, as does going to a birthday party, or a nightclub, or to the office. So, of course, there is a risk to children attending school during the pandemic, albeit a smaller one than an adult, as they have less of a chance of becoming seriously ill.

At the same time, there is also a serious risk to children not attending school for in-person learning. Evidence gathered from around the world has laid bare the devastating impact of school closures, but neither fact negates the other. 

When explained clearly, people understand that two things can be true at once. They can make an informed decision, based on what’s best for their circumstances. Instead, parents have been given jargon and half-statements.

Controlled environment?

Parents have been told schools are ‘controlled environments’ compared to playdates and sleepovers, without a clear, concise explanation. How could anyone reconcile the chaos of a junior infants classroom with ‘controlled environment’, which conjures up images of scientists examining test tubes in a sterile lab. It is nonsense to tell parents not to let their children mix after school, without giving them clear clinical examples of how cases spread this way, based on real case studies.

Because, in the minds of most people, socialising in and out of school are the same thing. Their child does not go to school in a sterilised bubble. Their child goes to school in a crowded classroom, and in their mind, what difference does it make if they mix outside of school or at the panto, when they share a desk together five days a week?

Restrictions on children

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) said its recommendation to restrict children's activities is necessary to protect schools. In its latest letter to Government, it says that along with community transmission and household transmission, the high incidence rate in 5-12 year-olds is being driven by the "very high levels of infection in adults". 

If that's the case, why put the kibosh on playdates and gatherings? The least it could do when putting forward such a recommendation is to illustrate to parents why it thinks this measure will be effective, using real data, given that the rest of adult society remains almost in full swing. 

An eye-watering amount of money has been spent in this country on providing hand sanitizers and perspex screens. Schools are no different than any other sector that ploughed money into measures once thought to offer more protection than we now know they do. 

It has taken two reviews, calls from unions, and a surging infection rate in the under 12s to prompt a policy change this week from Nphet on face coverings for younger children. On Thursday, Professor Mary Horgan, a member of Nphet, told RTÉ: "Although it is difficult for younger children to wear masks we do need to follow the science." 

Ventilation

Currently, many schools are frozen, grappling with teaching with windows wide open in a bid to keep their rooms well ventilated. They have been given C02 monitors but no concrete guidance on what to do when they stay persistently in the red. Schools can apply for funding from the Department of Education to help address this but as reported by the Examiner, just 13 schools have done so, an indication perhaps of an application process that acts as yet another admin burden for principals as they try and keep the show on the road.

Professor John Wenger, who chaired the expert group on ventilation, previously told the Examiner that C02 levels of less than 800pm "represents good ventilation", but above 1,400 to 1,500ppm "indicates poor ventilation or crowding". Some schools operating in “stressful environments” have told him of C02 levels consistently higher than 1,500ppm. 

As the temperature continues to drop, parents and schools are already scrambling to find air filters and cleaners. In the absence of clear advice and guidance, the market is wide open for junk science and cowboys to take advantage of, as we’ve unfortunately seen plenty of times when it comes to pandemic supplies.

Putting out a clear message on ventilation in schools is just one area where Nphet could act fast to help protect the continued operation of education. It could also encourage councils to facilitate more outside play areas for children this winter, or it could provide tailored advice to families who have high-risk members. 

It could call on employers or the Government to provide a scheme that covers employees' pay if they have a child with mild Covid symptoms who has to stay out of school. It could put public health doctors front and centre to explain how school outbreaks occur. 

The vaccine roll-out for younger children is imminent, and parents will have questions and concerns. Nphet will be the voice that most parents hear. They will need to feel that their questions will be answered truthfully and wholeheartedly.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up