Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh (Atógáil) - Priority Questions (Resumed)
80. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the number of CO2 monitors required to provide one for each classroom, learning support room, staff room and other school spaces in which they are required; the number that have been provided to schools to date; and when the remaining monitors will be delivered to schools. [45677/21]
We are a year and a half into a pandemic. We know very well the virus is airborne and that ventilation is crucial, and yet we still do not have CO2 monitors in every classroom across the State. According to what the Minister has just said, we are almost finalised and, therefore, there is not even a plan to have CO2 monitors for every classroom across the State. Why are we scrimping and saving on children's health? Why are we not ensuring there are CO2 monitors in every classroom, HEPA filtration systems where necessary, especially considering the moves that are being made in terms of contact tracing?
Managing ventilation is just one of a suite of public health measures in place to keep our schools safe. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices in schools was provided at the end of May, following the work of an expert group that carefully considered the role of ventilation in managing Covid-19. A copy of the guidance is published on the gov.ie website.
The overarching approach in the guidance is for schools to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use and partially open when classrooms are in use. The guidance outlines that carbon dioxide monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas or rooms may not be adequately ventilated.
They can enable occupants to become familiar with the impacts of activities, outdoor weather and window openings on levels of good ventilation. The Department procured portable monitors, as recommended, and these are currently being distributed to schools at a rate of between two and 20 per school at primary school level and between 20 and 35 at post-primary school level, depending on school size, at an estimated overall cost of €4 million. The monitors are portable, simple to use and will give a digital reading. The provision of portable CO2monitors provides schools with the flexibility to focus their use on those rooms where they will be most beneficial to inform strategies for optimising ventilation in the school.
Deliveries of CO2monitors to schools commenced in the third week of August. In total, it involves over 35,000 CO2monitors being distributed to primary and post-primary schools. Some 25,000 CO2monitors have been distributed to schools. This has facilitated monitors being provided to each school with 96% of primary schools, including all special schools, having received their full allocation of CO2 monitors. Ten CO2monitors have been provided to schools at post-primary level with the balance of their allocation expected to be distributed in October. As I have said earlier, should they wish, schools have the option to purchase monitors locally rather than drawing down from the central framework. With regard to the Deputy's reference to scrimping on expenditure in schools, more than €635 million has been allocated for Covid measures within our schools in this past year, including €57 million for this first term alone. There has been no scrimping on Covid measures for the school sector.
The Government has taken a policy decision not to provide a CO2monitor for every classroom in this State. That is a scandalous policy decision. The Government has also taken a policy decision not to provide high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filtration systems where necessary. To make our schools reasonably safe from a ventilation perspective would cost €10 per child but the Government is choosing not to do so. I was speaking to a principal yesterday who had to go down the precise route the Minister advocates. The board of management had to go and buy its own CO2monitors in order to have an adequate number. Children are those most at risk of Covid at the moment. It seems that the policy of the Government is to allow Covid to run riot through children. If this approach is followed, the consequence will be a small but important proportion of unvaccinated children ending up hospitalised. It is very important to note that up to 10% of those who get the disease could end up with long Covid.
I have to disagree with much of what the Deputy has said. It was the view of the expert group under Professor Wenger that portable CO2 monitors should be provided. The Deputy should be mindful that monitors are just that; they monitor when it is best to increase ventilation. This might mean opening additional windows or doors or whatever the case might be. They just give an instruction. That is all that they do. I acknowledge that there is already excellent practice within the schools sector. Indeed, Professor Wenger himself commented on the excellent guidelines provided to schools. It was envisaged that these monitors would be used as a spot check. That is why they are portable. They can be moved from room to room.
With specific regard to air filtration or any additional measures that might be required, the Department is prepared and is working with schools. If any additional measures are required to increase ventilation, these can be carried out under the minor works scheme or the expertise of an engineer or architect can be provided either locally or from the Department and, if works are necessary, they will be carried out as emergency works. If air filters are required in the short term, they can also be put in place.
The change in policy with regard to close contact tracing does not make sense. If a child goes to a birthday party for half an hour, that child is counted as a close contact and has to be tested. However, if they are in school and in the same pod as another child all day, every day, for a week, all of a sudden they no longer count as a close contact. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is an approach of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. If we do not test children, we will not see just how widely Covid is running through our schools. It seems this decision will have quite negative consequences if it is not reversed. Parents should obviously be facilitated. Their lives should not be made more difficult. They should be facilitated in getting children tested but the idea that we should just turn a blind eye to the Covid transmission happening in the schools and treat schools as some sort of magical place where transmission does not happen does not make any sense.
There is absolutely no question of a blind eye being turned to anything within our schools. I want to be very clear that all of the mitigation measures recommended by the public health officials are in place in our schools and remain in our schools despite what is happening in wider society. These are rigorous measures. The advice offered yesterday is the best expert medical advice of the CMO and NPHET, who have collectively reviewed all of the population data relating to the cohort of children under 13 years of age. It is their expert view that the reopening of schools has not led to an increased incidence of Covid-19 among schoolgoing children or the wider population. I have discussed this with Professor Philip Nolan who, as the Deputy will be aware, is carrying out the modelling and it is the expert view of NPHET that, prior to the schools returning, the positivity level among children under 13 years of age was at 15%. On the return to school, that rate is now 5%. These measures are being introduced on foot of expert data analysis and the advice of the CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, and NPHET.