Covid-19, schools and children

 

Sir, – Ronan McGreevy asks why schools are set to reopen after amenities such as bars, restaurants, garden centres and even bookies (“Primary schools must reopen. It’s time for parents to make their voices heard”, Education, Opinion, May 14th). I would question his comparison here, as school is the only amenity on this list that people are required to attend by law. This would certainly inform the decision of the Government, as it would introduce the possibility of legal liability. At best we just don’t know if it is safe to return to school, so how can we make it compulsory? Of the places mentioned, school is the only one where social distancing is currently impossible.

Your columnist states that children are unlikely to be infected, and that child-to-child transmission is rare. We have known for a long time that children are less affected. This does not change the fact they can still pass Covid-19 on to elderly or vulnerable people. The vast majority of children will come into contact with elderly and vulnerable people on a daily basis. Furthermore, every school has a number of immuno-compromised children. Such children would be in critical danger should they contract the virus.

It’s common for people who advocate the return of schools to bring up comparisons to other countries. Ronan McGreevy draws a direct comparison to Denmark’s opening of schools last month. Prior to Covid-19, Denmark had a vastly superior healthcare system to that of Ireland. This is reflected in the much lower death rate in Denmark. At the time of writing, it ranks 24th in the world with 93 deaths per million. Ireland ranks 11th with 305 deaths per million.

Denmark has a much lower pupil to teacher ratio than Ireland. The average class size in Ireland is 25, but many classes have up to 30. In Denmark the average class size is fewer than 20. When Danish schools reopened they did so with maximum class sizes of 10, and with desks one metre apart. They also introduced strict rules with to regard to hygiene. In contrast, the average Irish classroom is rather small, has groups of about five or six pupils sitting together at tables that are less than a metre apart. Pupils are lucky if their elbow doesn’t hit their classmate’s when they write. Furthermore, schools simply do not have an adequate supply of cleaning products. Prior to the lockdown, many teachers struggled to source their own disinfectant and soap for their classes, as school supplies ran out. Bear in mind that vomiting, urination, spitting and coughing are daily realities in primary schools.

It is clear to anybody that works in education that schools are not ready to reopen safely. People need to trust the healthcare and education professionals, and not allow the pressures of the pandemic to cloud their judgment. Perhaps if the healthcare and education systems had some meaningful investment over the past decade, we would be in a different position. And if we had efficient hospitals, smaller class sizes, and an abundance of personal protective equipment. The reality is we don’t. Consequently, caution is needed. We are not Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, or any other continental European country of your choosing.

We can’t just release the parachute halfway through our jump because we think it has done its job.

If keeping the schools closed for another four weeks saves the life of even one immuno-compromised child or vulnerable person, it is the right thing to do. – Yours, etc,

SHAY O’ NUALLÁIN,

Dublin 9.

Sir, – Every day we are assaulted with stories of what our “new normal” will look like. As an adult, I can accept being obliged to wear a mask in public, have my temperature checked, keep a distance from people and, as looks likely, pay increased taxes if I’m lucky enough to still have a job.

But when I see what is being prepared for our children, I despair. Segregation in creches and schools, masked caregivers, induced germaphobia, removal of blankets or soft toys, and an underlying subtext that unless they obey, they risk killing their grandparents.

At what point do we intervene and say this madness has gone too far?

Our duty of care to our children goes far beyond protecting them from viruses.

When it comes time to account for the decisions we make now, it will do us no credit if our only defence is that we were guided by the advice of public health experts. – Yours, etc,

STEPHEN BRUCE,

Blackrock,

Co Dublin.