CAN Covid-19 be spread by asymptomatic people? Are masks effective at stopping the spread of Coronaviruses? Have lockdowns killed more than they’ve saved?
2020 was a year punctuated by questions that only science can answer. But never fear: Cork secondary school science students are on the case.
From the impacts of masks on sports practitioners to whether students with ASD were negatively affected by lockdown, the finest young scientific minds in the county have been meticulously researching, designing experiments and recording their results in a bid to find answers to very important questions.
Across 120 finalist projects county-wide, Covid-19 emerged as a prominent theme this year, with subjects relating to masks, hand sanitiser and lockdown impacts all featuring. And the projects’ findings are intriguing.
The annual BT Young Scientist event gets underway online tomorrow, Wednesday, January 6 and runs until Friday, January 8.
Masks do have a statistically significant negative impact on athletic performance, according to experiments conducted by Leah Nolan, 14, from Loreto Secondary School in Fermoy.
Leah, who is in second year and lives in Kilworth, is a keen Gaelic football player with Fermoy LGFA. That was her inspiration to investigate the impacts of wearing masks during exercise, she explains.
“I really missed playing football when we were in lockdown but when we came back, the guidance was that we didn’t have to wear masks and I was curious,” she says.
“When I was researching it, I found loads of opinions that masks impacted performance, but not any studies that actually proved that, so I decided to study it myself.”
Enlisting the help of her school-mates, Leah used the beep test familiar to students from PE class for physical trials, and also conducted surveys to research attitudes on the issue.
“The beep test showed that fabric masks have a statistically significant negative effect on sporting performance,” Leah says.
“The majority of beep test scores were significantly lower with the mask than without. Then I got the averages of the scores and used a formula to calculate the T-value and the P-value.”
“The P-value was less than 0.05, which means it’s statistically significant to a confidence interval of 95%.”
Leah’s surveys of fellow students and team-mates helped her identify what some of the problems were.
“They said they found breathing in the masks uncomfortable,” she says. “They found the moisture, the feeling of the masks on their face, and the heat uncomfortable.”
“I sent a second survey to my sports team and on social media and that was more about general attitudes to masks: Whether they’d train if they had to wear a mask. Half said they would, and a third said they wouldn’t, which I found interesting.”
Leah said specially designed sports masks are available, although, true to her scientist’s instincts, she would like to study their efficacy more before she would consider recommending them in school settings.
“They have breathable material that’s apparently still effective at preventing Covid-19 and they are raised off the face, so they could be a solution to the problem of the impact masks have on performance.
“If I had more time, I’d do a beep test with the sports masks too, to see if they really make a difference or if it’s just companies claiming that they’re better.”
Two projects on Covid-19-related themes in the Social and Behavioural Sciences category are amongst 14 finalists from St Mary’s Secondary School in Macroom this year.
Keeva Murphy Healy, 16, and Lilly Murphy, 15, are Transition Year students who chose to study the impacts of lockdown on children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Keeva hopes to pursue a career in STEM and will study Chemistry and Biology, while her project co-author Lilly has her heart set on primary school teaching.
Their project was inspired by the duo’s own experiences of lockdown: if they felt their social interactions had suffered so much, how would it have affected youngsters with additional communication challenges to overcome?
Both girls had difficulties themselves with the school closure that accompanied the first lockdown.
For Keeva, “it was really hard to do the Junior Cert at home because I have two really young brothers and sisters and it was really hard to get time to be alone and to study.
“It made me realise how much I missed school.”
“People with autism thrive on routine and the lockdown really obstructed that,” Keeva points out, “and going into school is a really big part of their routine.”
Keeva and Lilly sent a survey to teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in 40 schools, Keeva says: “we asked them questions about before, during and after lockdown and the behavioural changes and social changes they noticed in their students. We wanted a third- person perspective on the situation.”
Their survey revealed a very high level of concern amongst teachers and SNAs about the negative impacts of lockdown on their ASD students. All reported that their students’ social and linguistic skills regressed during lockdown and that students came back to school with a disproportionately high level of anxiety about contracting Covid-19.
Having observed the negative impacts on their students, most teachers and SNAs were firmly opposed to another school closure, according to Lilly.
“Teachers said it wasn’t viable for their ASD students to undergo another lockdown,” Lilly says.
“The majority said it hindered ASD students’ learning and they had regressed socially. Teachers said they missed teaching face-to-face a lot.”
“They said they think their students would be able to recover the losses to their development over time, but that a second lockdown would have a very negative impact on them.”
Keeva and Lilly’s recommendation as a result of their research is that the government work to ensure students with ASD have access to the benefits of a classroom setting and do not impose more school closures on them.
“Going forward, it has to be recognised by the wider public and the government that there are these secondary effects from lockdown and that more care and consideration should be given when planning out new guidelines,” Lilly says.
“Maybe exceptions could be made for ASD students? The same rules don’t apply to everyone.”
Meanwhile, fellow St Mary’s TY student Sophie McCrory, 16, took on the challenging topic of domestic violence during lockdown to explore whether there had been an increase in reports of incidents of domestic abuse.
“Both my parents are members of An Garda Síochána and I heard from them that they were having to deal with a lot of domestic violence incidents,” Sophie says.
“I started reading articles and got interested in how people living with domestic abuse had their way of escape, like work or school, cut off.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, Sophie chose to conduct a broad literature review from a variety of different organisations rather than try to make contact with families experiencing abuse.
The sad results are that the first lockdown did indeed coincide with a spike in reports of domestic violence.
“There was an increase,” Sophie says. “Women’s Aid saw a 43% increase in calls to their service in the March to June period, compared to 2019. The gardaí saw a 25% increase in calls in May, down to 23% in July.”
Sophie notes that not all incidents involved partner abuse.
“Chief Superintendent Cadogan said they had seen an increase in sibling violence as well as in violence against parents by adult children,” she says.
Most troubling of all is that it’s likely there’s a large, silent majority who aren’t able to report their abuse, Sophie says.
“I was sad to hear about the amount of people who don’t seek support,” she says.
“I think that’s what I found most upsetting. I found out that there’s an average of 30 incidents of domestic abuse before someone will call the gardaí. I found it very upsetting to hear that people go through that and that they feel they can’t get help from anyone.”
In Sophie’s opinion, the garda operation to combat domestic violence launched during lockdown, Operation Faoiseabh, needs to continue to be adequately resourced into the future.
It’s back to the issue of masks for a project from Midleton College, where TY students Mia Cosgrave and Olivia O’Driscoll set about trying to discover why students and teachers were having such a hard time interacting in class while wearing masks.
Masks are most certainly having an impact on how teens and teachers can communicate in post-primary schools, according to surveys the duo conducted, but it’s not a simple matter of volume, as they discovered when they conducted an experiment on volume.
“We knew face coverings were affecting communication, but we didn’t know how and why, so we wanted to look into that,” Mia says.
Mia and Olivia recorded a reading of a paragraph from The Great Gatsby and then played it through a speaker at 79 decibels, roughly the volume of a teacher’s voice. They used a decibel reader app to measure the volume of the recording from distances from two to eight metres, at two metre intervals. Then they repeated the experiment with a cloth mask, a visor and a disposable mask.
There was a difference, but it was minimal: Cloth face coverings decreased sound level by an average of 1.98 dB, while disposable masks fared worse and reduced the volume by 3.3dB.
Yet Mia and Olivia’s surveys revealed that both teachers and students are finding masks a serious barrier to communication: 60% of teachers reported having hoarse voices at the end of the day and almost all said they found it difficult to hear masked students.
90% of students said they had to speak louder while wearing a mask, and 70% said they struggled to understand teachers.
As the famous physicist Richard Feynman used to say, when the results of your experiment don’t match your theory, it’s back to the drawing board.
“We were kind of surprised by the results because the decrease in volume wasn’t as much as we thought, and the visor doesn’t decrease the sound level as much as we thought,” Mia says.
“We expected a bigger decrease in decibels, so it showed that there are other factors at play that are prohibiting students from hearing teachers. We think that facial recognition is probably having a huge impact.”
The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is taking place online from Wednesday January 6 to Friday, January 8.