Education chiefs have ’heads in the sand’ over indoor airflow as windows remain painted shut in some schools
There are still schools in Northern Ireland where windows are painted shut almost two years into the pandemic — severely restricting efforts to keep staff and pupils safe from Covid-19.
The Department of Education is coming under mounting pressure to put in place more measures to protect pupils and staff after latest figures showed Northern Ireland recorded an average of five new Covid-19 cases every minute on Thursday.
Experts have argued that proper ventilation is a crucial element of ensuring classrooms are as safe as possible.
However, the Department of Education has said it is still in the process of addressing ventilation just days before pupils return to class amid the growing Omicron wave.
Justin McCamphill, Northern Ireland national officer for teaching union NASUWT, said: “I think the department has had its head in the sand with what’s going to happen when schools return.”
Responding to a query on what steps have been taken to make schools as safe as possible, including the implementation of air filtration systems, a Department of Education spokeswoman said they may be considered if deemed necessary.
According to the spokeswoman, education officials are still in the process of assessing what measures are required in classrooms to improve ventilation.
“Approximately 95% of schools have now been provided with CO2 monitors at a cost of £1.1m, with the remainder of the schools being provided with monitors as a priority,” the spokeswoman said.
“The readings from these monitors will be used to identify where natural ventilation is deficient within a school and remedial works will subsequently be undertaken by the Education Authority.
“The remedial works may include the installation of mechanical ventilation.”
However, Mr McCamphill said the distribution of CO2 monitors to date is insufficient.
“There aren’t enough to go into every classroom,” he said.
Mr McCamphill said the NASUWT is aware of some schools where the estate is so rundown that windows have been painted shut.
And a teacher at a Co Armagh secondary school said they have had to resort to propping open doors to improve ventilation despite the fact this goes against a different policy designed to keep students and staff safe from intruders.
“We aren’t supposed to keep doors open because it then means random strangers can access the school but that’s all we can do for ventilation because we can’t open the windows,” she said.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, a member of the Stormont education committee, said: “As far as I can see, the Department of Education has done very little to support schools.
“A lot of the guidance seems to extend to telling schools to keep windows and doors open when there is sufficient evidence of good international practice that does reduce the spread of Covid-19 in schools.
“The CO2 monitors are all very well but all they do is show where ventilation isn’t good enough, we need actual action.
“We’re seeing other parts of these islands taking steps that aren’t happening here. We need a strategic way out of this and currently it doesn’t seem to be happening.”
The NASUWT has issued a call to the Department of Education ahead of the reopening of schools this week for a range of measures to be put in place.
These include the provision of government-funded air cleaning units to every school and college — coming after England committed to make 7,000 available.
It also wants financial support to help schools and colleges cover the cost of substitute staff to fill Covid-related absences and the suspension of all non-business critical activities in schools by the Education Authority, Department of Education and Education and Training Inspectorate for as long as required.
Mr McCamphill said many principals have been working through the Christmas holidays to develop contingency plans ahead of potential mass absences of staff.
He said it is likely some classes or even schools will remain closed to pupils when they are meant to be welcoming students back after the Christmas break.
“Teachers, pupils and students, and parents will be concerned about the potential risk of further disruption to schools caused by the Omicron variant,” he said.
“The Northern Ireland Executive must do everything it can to prevent schools from experiencing significant staffing problems next term and further damage to the education of children and young people.
“The decision made in September to redefine a school close contact so narrowly that almost no child was a close contact has failed.
“The Executive needs to ensure that schools are subject to the same protections as wider society.”
Mr McCamphill also called for better support for schools to ensure pupils adhere to face mask regulations.