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Covid situation is ‘dire’ in Northern Ireland schools, says teaching union

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Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official

Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official

Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official

A leading teachers’ union has said the situation is “dire” in Northern Ireland’s schools and encouraged the Education Minister to speed up the roll out of air infiltration units.

There are still schools here where windows are painted shut, severely restricting efforts to keep staff and pupils safe from Covid-19.

Pupils returned to the classroom earlier this week following the Christmas and New Year break, but the Executive deciding against introducing tougher restrictions on Thursday despite the alarming spread of the Omicron variant.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

According to the Department of Health on Thursday, there were 49,270 positive Covid-19 cases reported in just seven days.

NASUWT National Official Northern Ireland Justin McCamphill, said almost every school in Northern Ireland has reached the stage where they are having to move pupils to online learning in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

“But the biggest concern we’re receiving from members at the minute is around temperatures in school because the only way to achieve good ventilation is to open windows,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

“That is taking temperatures down so far that it’s very uncomfortable both for teachers and pupils.”

Speaking after Thursday’s Executive meeting, First Minister Paul Givan said CO2 monitors are being delivered across the school estate.

CO2 monitors indicate a lack of fresh air, but air infiltration units clean the air and help get rid of the Covid-19 virus.

Air infiltration units have been rolled out across the Republic of Ireland but as yet, a large number of schools in Northern Ireland have not been provided with the equipment.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the Education Authority has placed an initial order for 100 filtration units as part of an interim measure to assist in “areas where specific remedial action to improve ventilation is either not possible immediately, or will have a lead time to address”.

The spokesperson added: “Air cleaners such as High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) Filters may be suitable where there is insufficient ventilation and the ventilation can’t be improved but should never be used as a substitute for ventilation. Work continues to identify how these are best used and where they should be installed.”

Mr McCamphill said Education Minister Michelle McIlveen must engage with air infiltration unit suppliers immediately.

“We see them being rolled out rather slowly in England but we don’t have them at all,” he continued.

“I feel very let down on behalf of our members that they haven't been afforded the same protection as their colleagues in the Republic of Ireland.

“We want to keep schools open and we want to do it as safe as possible so we should be putting all mitigations in place.

“My big fear was when the air monitors - CO2 monitors - were rolled out, is that they would just tell everyone what they already knew, which is their classroom is unsafe.

“We have teachers at the minute sitting in rooms and getting feedback from monitors that there’s no circulation in their room.

“There are teachers at schools where the windows don’t open and they're looking at an air monitor that’s sitting on red all day.

“Those schools desperately need infiltration systems otherwise there’s no air circulation. If Covid is in that room everyone is going to get it.”

Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan urged Ms McIlveen to outline a plan that will put the safety of pupils, parents and teachers first.

“The priority for everyone needs to be on ensuring that our schools can function safely and that staff, children and parents are protected,” he stated.

“The Omicron variant and rising cases is increasing the pressure on school staff.

“The Education Minister needs to come to the Assembly to set out a clear plan for keeping schools open which puts the safety of pupils, teachers and parents first and deals with the pressures on school staff caused by rising infection rates.”

The Department of Education said they are focussing on a “range of mitigations to put in place in our schools where ventilation issues have been identified”.

"Natural ventilation is the best mitigation against Covid-19 and the vast majority of our classrooms already have adequate ventilation.”

They said the 100 filtration units ordered will “be supplied by the EA to affected schools, as an interim measure, until such times as remedial works, including repairs or replacement of windows or the installation of an air ventilation system, are completed.”


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