Schools are suffering from an absence of leadership on Covid

Planning, forward thinking and innovation are not strong characteristics of the Department of Education, so says Kathriona Devereux
Schools are suffering from an absence of leadership on Covid

Children wearing face masks at a school in London. Kathriona Devereux is critical of the Department of Education here in Ireland.

“WHY eat bats!?” I found myself exasperatedly shouting at the radio, wondering how could a desire for exotic meat have potentially resulted in 253 million cases and five million Covid-19 deaths worldwide?

I was listening to virologist Prof Michael Worobey explain how, after detailed investigation, he was confident the first case of Covid-19 was most likely to have originated from an infected animal at the Huanan Seafood Market, and not the Wuhan Institute of Virology as previously suspected.

As he spoke about the first Covid-19 patients and their geographic connection to the market, which is the size of a soccer field amidst a city of 11 million people, I was reminded of the hazy facts that emerged from China when Covid-19 started grabbing headlines and how the butchering of bats was initially blamed for the outbreak.

We will probably never fully know the virus’ pathway to humans but we will live with the consequences forever. 

Worobey explained that Covid-19 will eventually become an endemic illness that we grudgingly accept as part of life, and sadly, death.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were patting ourselves on the back for the amazing 92% vaccination rate reached by Irish adults. In comparison to our European cousins in Poland with a 62% rate of vaccination or Romania (42%) we hoped to have insulated ourselves from the worst of Covid for Winter 2021.

Alas, the latest surge of cases has shown that vaccines are not the complete panacea we had hoped for, which is why the dire warnings from the HSE are so worrying.

While vaccines are not reducing transmission, they are protecting people from severe illness. 

Back in mid-January, when we were getting comparable daily case numbers, there were about 1,500 people in hospital and 145 in ICU, at the moment we’re around half that amount of Covid in-patients and hovering around 125 in ICU.

How hospital numbers proceed over the next few weeks will depend largely on how much people make a deliberate effort to avoid catching the virus by cutting their social contacts, wearing masks and shunning risky Covid-loving indoor environments.

Families with young children have been on a Covid-19 rollercoaster since school started back in September, trying to balance public health advice against the inevitable winter coughs and colds, against missing multiple days of school waiting for test results, while also being very aware of the unvaccinated status of their children.

When contact tracing was abandoned in schools in September in a bid to stop thousands of children deemed close contacts having to stay at home unnecessarily, it seemed inevitable that the virus would work its way through classrooms of 20-30 unvaccinated children gathered indoors for five hours a day.

Relying on hand sanitiser, ‘pods’ and open windows to keep a highly transmissible airborne virus at bay in an unvaccinated population now seems either naive, optimistic or reckless.

School communities and principals have been doing their best in the absence of any real leadership from the Department of Education.

Against official advice, many schools have been letting parents know if there is a confirmed case in a classroom so other parents can be extra vigilant.

Given that schools notify parents if there is a case of hair lice in a class, it seems ludicrous if families are not told about a case that has the potential to make vulnerable family members seriously ill.

Once informed parents have been deliberating if they should keep their kids home, antigen test them or cross their fingers and send them in. These decisions are calculated against different family situations - maybe grandparents help with childcare, maybe there is a medically vulnerable parent or sibling at home, maybe a parent is a health care worker, maybe €5 per antigen test is prohibitively expensive.

Many parents have spent hours agonising over the best thing to do, while others seem to be heedless to public health advice. I know of one teacher who enquired about a student’s runny nose, only to be informed by the child his snotty nose was probably because his parents were at home sick with Covid. This teacher went on to contract the virus and is rightly annoyed at the blasé attitude of those reckless parents.

Some teachers, principals and experts have been calling for greater measures such as mask wearing or air filtration systems to protect children in classrooms.

However, planning, forward thinking and innovation are not strong characteristics of the Department of Education. This is a department that spends €1.7million every year posting payslips to teachers and spends almost €30million every year on prefabs rather than prioritising the construction of permanent school premises.

Back in September ventilation expert Professor Orla Hegarty said it would cost €12million to install basic air purification systems in classrooms and that, coupled with mask wearing at school, would reduce the risk of pupils contracting Covid by 90%.

With infection rates rising at an alarming rate in schools, the announcement that antigen testing of close contacts in a classroom with two or more confirmed cases will start next week is welcome.

However it will rely on the goodwill and sense of parents and cases will still fall through the cracks as we know antigen tests are not the gold standard of testing.

Currently, more than 10,000 children are absent from school because of Covid and thousands more are likely to miss weeks of school in the winter period because they are awaiting test results, someone in their household is positive or they themselves have contracted Covid.

This will be tolerable for children fortunate to live in comfortable circumstance with access to online learning and proper support but, yet again, will be tortuous for children living in cramped or shared living conditions without adequate support.

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