Editorial: Students and staff left out in the cold by government

Ireland’s current official policy regarding schools is based on denial

At 9am on November 29, when schools around Ireland were beginning the week’s classes, the temperature across much of Leinster was 1°C. Most of those same schools are currently conducting classes with all their windows open to provide ventilation and limit the spread of Covid-19.

Parents and teachers around the country have, of late, been sharing stories in the media and online of the battle against the cold inside Irish classrooms. Children are being sent to school with hats and scarves to wear throughout the day and teachers are putting hot water bottles under their coats while they work. Some students are finding it difficult to write, choosing between having their hands numb from the cold or wearing unwieldy gloves. The word “disgraceful” is overused in Irish political discourse to the point of near meaninglessness, but it’s hard to describe this any other way; it’s an absolute disgrace.

Last Wednesday, November 24, Education Minister Norma Foley said that “expert reports are telling us that natural ventilation is the best” for schools. Whether keeping windows open is indeed the best way to keep the virus at bay is a matter for epidemiologists, but this plainly isn’t sustainable as an environment to learn, work or even just exist in. In Ireland, employers are legally required to maintain a minimum workplace temperature of 17.5°C. Many schools are, these days, recording ones as low as 9°C or 10°C throughout the day.

There are also solutions to this. For example, researchers from the University of Geneva and European Organization for Nuclear Research found that using one HEPA filter is as effective as two partially-open windows in winter, and combining it with briefly fully opening windows at the end of classes and having students wear masks causes the benefits to multiply.

It’s November, and we are 53° north of the Equator. It will continue to be regularly very cold until January or February. This is the second winter of the pandemic. There’s not only no excuse for not doing this now, there’s no excuse for not having prepared for it months ago. The Independent Scientific Advisory Group was calling for masks and filters in schools in August, and really government should have independently come to the same conclusion long before that. There should have been detailed plans in place, and we should have invested in the necessary equipment.

Indeed, it would cost no more than a few million euro to put a HEPA filter in every classroom in the country, and government has already spent roughly that amount of money supplying 35,000 CO2 filters to schools to encourage the opening of windows; it would achieve the same or better results, and the nation’s schoolchildren would be able to feel their hands again. That’s a good deal.

So really, the reason children and teachers are freezing is not because there’s no better solution or because it would be prohibitively expensive, it’s because the government’s policy surrounding Covid-19 in schools is guided chiefly by denial. This is evident in Minister Foley’s comments about natural ventilation, and it’s also evident in the conversation about how safe schools are overall.

On the same day Foley made those comments, Ireland’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Ronan Glynn denied in an interview that he or any other official had ever said “schools are safe”. The Irish Independent helpfully compiled a non-exhaustive list of ten examples of government officials — the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Glynn himself, CMO Dr Tony Holohan, Minister Foley and others — repeatedly saying exactly that over a span of at least 11 months.

It was farcical, of course; we all remember being told on an almost daily basis that schools are safe, and the deputy CMO wasn’t going to convince us we remembered wrong. But really, it’s more interesting that that line has been so-often repeated, because there’s effectively no evidence that it’s true. There’s no evidence to suggest the opposite either, there just isn’t a lot of data of any kind about Covid transmission in Irish schools. We do know that huge numbers of teachers are out of work due to contracting the virus, putting further strain on schools, but we’re usually not sure where they catch it.

So why has the government taken it as an article of faith for months now that schools are safe? Because stubbornly insisting everything is fine, as with the classroom ventilation situation, is all they can think to do. Schools probably need to remain open; parents can’t afford to take time off work or hire childminders to take care of their kids. This was the approach during the early stages of the pandemic, and it worked for a while, but it’s not sustainable.

Really, government needs to earnestly admit to the nation that schools are probably as dangerous as anywhere else, and that while we will take all available steps to mitigate this, society may ultimately have to make sacrifices in other areas to balance out the effect of having schools open. That short, difficult, conversation is apparently beyond their capability, though. Just like the one that goes “we should have planned for winter in schools months ago. We made a mistake, we’re sorry, and we’ll go buy 40,000 HEPA filters now.”

This inability to admit wrongdoing, even when it involves denying reality or letting children freeze, is endemic in Irish politics. It’s the same reason parties who’ve collectively been in power since the foundation of the state claim they “inherited” an under-resourced health service (from whom?), and that our housing policy continues effectively unchanged even with a homeless population of 10,000 and college students having to live in hostels.

On a meta level, it seems unlikely that anyone will own up to this inability to admit wrongdoing, nor will they take steps to change their aversion to change. This is where we’re at, and without a complete upending of our political culture and system, it’s where we will continue to be.

If it wasn’t killing us, you’d almost laugh.