A building ventilation expert in Ireland said schools should be closed immediately until they are safe for children to attend.
Orla Hegarty has also warned that children from less affluent regions bear the brunt of the risks of Covid-19.
“We are unnecessarily endangering children every day,” said Ms Hegarty, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at University College Dublin.
Ms Hegarty, who has advocated for the installation of HEPA filters on mostly old public school buildings for months, warned that people who dismiss the Omicron variant as a mild virus “don’t know what they’re talking about”.
She added, “The truth is this is a very new disease. We simply don’t know what its long-term effects will be, even if the symptoms are mild now.”
We took two years to sort this out and kids still go to unhealthy environments every day where COVID is in the air.
According to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results, one in 50 people in Ireland currently has Covid, but the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) says the true number is likely to be twice that. That’s 1 in 25 people, which is someone who gets the infection every semester in Ireland.
We are going through a health disaster for children, who knows how many years to come?
We need to close schools now and inspect each school individually to see if it is safe for students to return.
“The fact that we gave up contact tracing and tracing in September is unbelievable,” he added.
“We are a long way from the rest of Europe when it comes to air filters and making schools safe for children.”
The Education Ministry admitted this weekend that there have been no figures on the number of schools that have installed HEPA filters since Minister Norma Foley announced small grants worth 62 million euros to facilitate their purchase.
A spokesperson for the minister said schools should benefit from the administration’s “professional advice” on how to make classrooms safe for children.
“Because every school environment is different, individual schools are best suited to determine how best to use this funding to meet their own needs,” he said.
Ms Hegarty said that children in urban and economically disadvantaged areas are the most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
She said: “Children in large classes who travel to school by public transportation, whose parents do front-line jobs and meet the public, are the most vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Private schools have better resources and seem to have been ahead of the curve in introducing filters and screens into the classroom.
“They also, of course, have smaller classrooms and parents are more likely to get jobs where they can work from home.”
Ms Hegarty was speaking as pupils returned to school on Thursday amid concern from parents and teachers about record Covid rates in the community.
Schools have reported unprecedented absenteeism rates of about one in three children, while teachers’ unions have also reported very high levels of absenteeism among members.
St Kevin’s College, an all-boys high school in Finglas, Co. Dublin, on closing early Friday due to cold temperatures as a result of the need to keep classroom windows open.
The principal of an elementary school in Carlow posted a temperature reading of 13.4 degrees on social media and asked, ‘Can we continue like this? Surely we need to start sending the kids home? This is not safe!
Despite an outpouring of concerns from schools about staff isolation, absenteeism and ventilation, neither the government nor NPHET is planning a blanket closure of schools.
A senior government source said: ‘We opened the schools on schedule because we thought if we didn’t, we wouldn’t open them again for months. Last year, at first, it was conceivable to shut it down for a week or more. Some classes don’t come back until April.
The calls to close schools come as the Ministry of Health yesterday confirmed 26,122 new cases of the virus, the highest daily number since the pandemic began.
As of yesterday, there are now 917 people in hospital, down 19 from Friday’s numbers, including 83 in the intensive care unit, down one.