BUSINESS + POLITICS
Coláiste Dhúlaigh Series: Covid in schools- Daily data on cases in schools badly needed
19th March 2021
This series is in collaboration with first-year Investigate Journalism students in Coláiste Dhúlaigh CFE
Lack of daily figures
Since the reopening of the schools in August the daily report released by the HPSC has not included the daily case figures from schools.
The daily report lists a number of outbreak locations such as Private House, Hospital, and Workplace but there is no category for the figures from schools.
The Department of Health did not confirm that cases from schools are being included in the aggregate figures.
This begs the question are the figures from schools being included and if so what are the figures being classified as in the daily report.
Parent compiled figures
The lack of daily figures have caused parents and teachers to go online for more information about the number of cases in schools. The ‘Alerting parents of outbreaks in schools Ireland’ Facebook group currently has nearly 120,000 members.
In this group parents share their fears about the safety of schools as well as any confirmation of outbreaks in their children’s schools.
These figures are then compiled and verified before being published daily by Martina Broe on Facebook and Twitter.
Broe told me she started compiling the figures because: “help people with vulnerable family members so they could be made aware of cases close to them.”
She believes that: “people have to know if they’re near a case.”
Broe says: “We receive school messages off school apps and straight from schools, and of course HSE letters.” The figures are then verified before they are published every evening.
School data currently available
The HPSC have been publishing weekly data showing the number of open clusters in schools since 12th September. However these figures only give an indication on the number of active breakouts not the number of individual cases.
The Department of Health confirmed that they have started publishing weekly testing updates from schools.
Lack of information of Covid amongst school staff
While this is a step in the right direction these figures do not show the levels amongst teachers and staff.
Many staff who applied for lower risk positions in schools due to health complications had their applications rejected.
Teachers unions have expressed their concern about testing amongst staff. INTO felt that there were issues with the time it took to deliver results of testing and contact tracing. “In the last month the turnaround times for both testing and contact tracing have not been adequate, with many school principals struggling to engage with public health authorities, particularly over the weekend.”
ASTI also echoed INTO in the need for a: “comprehensive testing programme for schools” as well as rapid testing and turnaround times.
Both unions stressed that their members wanted to be in school and believed that keeping schools open was in the best interest of their students.
INTO also commented on the need for investment in PPE, sanitary and cleaning products. Despite the current measures there is still concern about the airborne spread of the virus.
The current risks in schools
I spoke to John Wenger, Professor of Physical Chemistry at University College Cork, he had previously expressed his concern about the airborne spread of Covid in schools to Newstalk back in August. He told me that: “Although we cannot make schools completely safe, we can minimize the risk of spreading the virus in schools by applying a range of protective measures.”
He feels that: “while there is still some risk of transmission in schools, the general view is that this risk is worth taking because school is hugely important for children’s education, mental health and social needs and development.”
He thinks schools could do more to reduce the risks by: “making masks mandatory in primary schools and improving ventilation in schools.” As well as introducing a ‘hybrid approach’ where some students would learn and some in class. Thereby reducing the numbers in schools and reducing the risk of transmission.
Professor Luke O’Neill, Chair of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin said he believes the figures that are available show: “the measures seem to be working.”
Long term of effects
There are many unknowns about the long term effects of Covid on children. From the lingering effects of the virus to the effects of absences due to Covid on children’s education.
In November over 400000 children in the UK were absent due to Covid related issues. In spite of keeping schools open for the sake of children’s education and mental health many children’s educational outcomes could be affected by missing school due to Covid.
Studies show that missing just two school days a year can negatively affect educational outcomes.
Lack of transparency
If the government is committed to keeping schools open for the benefit of pupils and staff there is a need for more transparency.
Last week a primary school, Gaelscoil Uí Drisceoil, in Cork was forced to close for two weeks due to 17 cases in the school. The school was first made aware of an outbreak on November 15th however another case had been detected in the school days before but the school had not been informed.
This comes after RTE reported that data shows that schools were the third most likely place to catch Covid.
Since August 4th the percentage of Covid cases by age shows a jump in the school age groups (0-4 years, 5-14 years, 15-24 years). The percentage of Covid cases in the 0-4 years, 5-14 years, 15-24 years age groups rose by 1.78, 4.91, and 9.74% respectively. While the percentage of cases of those aged 25+ shrunk by an average of -2.34%.
There have been questions about why some age groups have been excluded from a number the 14 days reports.
By publishing the weekly testing figures it shows the Government is aware of parents’ and teachers requests for more transparency. However the government needs to do more to inform parents and staff on case numbers.
Publishing the daily figures of individual cases within schools, including both staff and pupils, could give parents and teachers full knowledge of the risks and it could allow schools to minimise them as much as possible.
I contacted the Minister of Health, Steven Donnelly, the HSE, and the HPSC for clarification on how the figures from schools are being classified in the daily report from the HPSC. However at time of publication I have yet to receive clarification.