Dáil debates

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


10:12 am

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance) | Oireachtas source

I will focus on the schools because well over a year ago I started questioning the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, about what was going on in schools. I did so because I was personally involved with a number of teachers who were in a group called the Forgotten Families. They were teachers who were vulnerable at school and who stayed at home to avoid Covid because of their vulnerability. They offered their time and services to do online teaching for children who had to stay at home because of vulnerability in their households. This group was completely ignored by the Department of Education, which continually told the parents that they must send their children to school, even though there were vulnerable members of the family in the house. The teachers themselves were constantly being checked and rechecked by Medmark and told they had to go back to school and teach and that there was no problem in the classrooms. One of these women, who is a personal friend of mine, went back to school with all her vulnerability and within two weeks she got Covid. She now suffers from long Covid and only two days ago she told me that she thinks she will never teach again. She is extremely weak and she does not have the energy to concentrate or think much. What a tragedy it is that the Irish education system has lost such a wonderful teacher and what a personal tragedy for her that her entire career has been wiped out.

That happened because there was an attempt, as Deputy Paul Murphy said, to create a mantra that somehow schools were magically safe and that they were bubbles of protection from a pandemic that existed nowhere else. That has been blown out of the water. In the last two weeks we have seen the numbers of cases among children at 20 times what they were in the last year. That is because we have allowed the situation to get out of control and because we have said that Covid comes from the community and not the schools. Schools are in our community and are part of it. As children go to school they also come home from school and bring the virus back into the house. This has been ignored to the point of the type of tragedy I have just outlined. If there is one teacher like my friend there are more and they are all over the country. We need to speak out for them and for the children and their parents who this morning faced a stressful situation at the school gates.

Principals got a letter late yesterday to tell them that from now on masking of nine to 12-year-olds is mandatory and that they were to implement that overnight. They were also told that if there were vulnerable children they could get a doctor's note. How does one get a doctor's note overnight? How does a principal who is trying to manage hundreds of nine- to 12-year-old children and their stressed-out parents implement a policy of mandatory masking of that nature without giving them time to convince the kids? They should have been given time to bring in the older sisters and brothers of those kids to show them how to mask and to explain that they have to do it to protect each other. The Department of Education has made a bags of dealing with Covid in the schools and I say that without any qualms whatsoever. The vast majority of people have a distaste for politicians who pretend that what is staring them in the face is not staring them in the face. To repeat over and over that schools are safe when the dogs in the street know they are not is a real kick in the face to the population.

It has been said already that HEPA filters are not by themselves a method to get rid of Covid. Rather, they are part of a suite of measures that must be introduced. When Covid broke out and when we were looking at what we could do, we knew that 80% of our schools were not properly ventilated. HEPA filters do not cost a king's ransom. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy got a figure for our alternative budget of €12 million to fit a HEPA filter system in every classroom in the country. If that is the case then why are we not spending that money to help protect children, teachers and their families from the spread of the virus? I will quote from the expert group on the role of ventilation in reducing the transmission of Covid from 2 March 2021:

Stand-alone HEPA filter devices can be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation [i.e. 80% of our schools]. They are an easy-to-apply and cost-effective short term mitigation measure.

It went on to say they can be "useful in reducing airborne transmission" and that important steps need to be taken now to prepare for the autumn and the winter. The expert group told us that back in March but this country and Government chose to ignore that advice. Children, their parents, principals and teachers are paying a hefty price for that.

As has been said, I hope the Government does not oppose this Bill but rather pushes it through quickly. The Government should ensure that, like has been done in other countries, it spends a few bob and provides the schools with HEPA filters. I know of one school in my constituency where the principal used a bit of excess from its budget to fit HEPA filters in every classroom but not all principals have that budget excess. I know of other schools where parents are pooling money to buy HEPA filters for the classrooms that their children attend. Why is the Government failing people in this way? This needs to be addressed with urgency,


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