There are still schools in Northern Ireland where the windows are painted closed almost two years after the start of the pandemic, severely restricting efforts to protect staff and students from Covid-19.
The Department of Education is under increasing pressure to put more measures in place to protect students and staff after latest figures show Northern Ireland has recorded an average of five new cases of Covid-19 every minute Thursday.
Experts have argued that good ventilation is a crucial part of ensuring that classrooms are as safe as possible.
However, the education ministry said it was still processing the ventilation just days before students returned to class amid the growing wave of Omicron.
Justin McCamphill, Northern Ireland national manager for the education union NASUWT, said: “I think the department has its head in the sand with what will happen when the schools return.”
Responding to a question about the measures that have been taken to make schools as safe as possible, including the implementation of air filtration systems, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said they could be considered if deemed necessary.
Education officials are still evaluating the measures needed in classrooms to improve ventilation, according to the spokesperson.
“Around 95% of schools have now been fitted with CO2 monitors at a cost of £ 1.1million, with the rest of schools being fitted with monitors as a priority,” the spokesperson said.
“The readings from these monitors will be used to identify places where natural ventilation is deficient in a school and corrective work will then be undertaken by the Education Authority.
“Remediation work can include the installation of mechanical ventilation.
However, Mr McCamphill said the distribution of CO2 monitors to date is insufficient.
“There isn’t enough to fit into every class,” he said.
Mr McCamphill said NASUWT is aware of some schools where the grounds are so run down that the windows have been painted shut.
And a teacher at a Co Armagh high school said they had to resort to open doors to improve ventilation despite going against a different policy designed to protect students and staff intruders.
“We’re not supposed to keep the doors open because that then means random strangers can get into the school, but that’s all we can do for the ventilation because we can’t open the windows,” he said. she declared.
Sinn Fein MP Pat Sheehan, a member of Stormont’s education committee, said: “As far as I know, the Education Department has done very little to support schools.
“Much of the advice seems to extend to telling schools to keep windows and doors open when there is sufficient evidence of international good practice that is reducing the spread of Covid-19 in schools.
“The CO2 monitors are all great, but all they do is show where the ventilation isn’t good enough, we need some real action.
“We are seeing other parts of these islands taking action that is not happening here. We need a strategic way out of this and currently it doesn’t seem to be happening. “
The NASUWT appealed to the Ministry of Education ahead of the reopening of schools this week for a series of measures to be put in place.
These include the provision of government-funded air purification units to every school and college – after England pledged to make 7,000 available.
He also wants financial support to help schools and colleges cover the cost of replacement staff to fill Covid-related absences and the suspension of all critical non-commercial activities in schools by the Education Authority, the Ministry of Education and Inspection of Education and Training as long as requested.
Mr McCamphill said many school principals had worked over the Christmas break to develop contingency plans for possible massive staff absences.
He said it is likely that some classes or even some schools will remain closed to students even though they are supposed to welcome students after the Christmas holidays.
“Teachers, pupils and students, as well as parents will be concerned about the potential risk of further disruption in schools caused by the Omicron variant,” he said.
“The Northern Ireland executive must do everything in its power to prevent schools from experiencing significant staffing issues in the next term and further damaging the education of children and young people.
“The decision in September to redefine close contact at school so close that almost no child was close contact failed.
“The executive must ensure that schools are subject to the same protections as society at large. “
Mr McCamphill also called for better support for schools to ensure students comply with regulations on face masks.