Covid in schools is a workplace-safety scandal

By Caitríona Ní Chatháin, second level teacher in Limerick and TUI school steward (personal capacity)

On the eve of 1 December, it was announced by the government that masks for children in third class upwards would become compulsory the following day. Both the poor timing and the clumsy, heavy-handed delivery of this message caused widespread confusion and anger. However, the reasons for introducing this measure were immediately obvious. That same week, due to the many reckless policies of the state, the number of children aged five to 12 years testing positive for Covid-19 had reached an alarming high, an increase of 80% on the previous four weeks, representing one in five of all cases notified during that week.

There are many similarities to this time last year: last Christmas, large sections of the public were calling for the early closure of schools in order to stop a wave of Covid which would overwhelm the already overburdened healthcare system. We now know that the majority of the spread happened after 18 December, whereas the government did not impose public health restrictions to interrupt the transmission of the virus until 27 December resulting in a huge surge of hospitalisations in January.

Unfortunately, this “too little too late” approach has brought us to the situation that we are in at the present moment with our schools. Media debates on the mechanics of air filtration, the efficacy of CO2 monitors, the pros and cons of opening windows, doing outdoor learning and so forth, distract from the overall crisis and historic lack of infrastructure and funding school workers and students are faced with every day. The reality is that the pandemic has gained ground due to factors both inside and outside of our schools that have little to do with the piecemeal mitigation efforts that have been put in place. Efforts have mainly fallen on the shoulders of already overworked school staff at little to no cost to the Department of Education.

Workers under the cosh 

That said, the catastrophic and dangerous handling of mitigation in schools is a reflection of the government’s wider approach (or lack thereof) to health and safety in the workplace for workers of all sectors and the emphasis on “business as usual” above all else, even in the midst of a raging pandemic. 

This comes as no surprise given the legacy of austerity. At present, there are almost one thousand schools waiting on renovations or replacement buildings. Along with the absence of basic safety measures such as the existence of HEPA filters, overcrowded schools are a crucial factor in exacerbating the Covid crisis In this way, there are many parallels with workers in other front-line sectors that have been met with similar levels of Health and Safety neglect. 

For instance, private social care workers, who do not benefit from sick leave, were not provided with masks until May 2020. A number of carers recounted experiences of not knowing if their client had suspected or confirmed coronavirus. Others reported having their weekly incomes slashed as a result of their clients testing positive for Covid-19. Likewise, for meat plant workers, there is no sick pay scheme for almost 80% of employees. July and August of 2020 were witness to numerous outbreaks and hundreds of cases of Covid-19 among meat plant workers (many of whom work for one of the richest men in Ireland). As late as November 2020 the HSA reported staff were still working face to face, in ill-fitted masks, with a lack of social distancing and tight spaces in meat factories. 

Fortunately, school workers have some modest entitlements such as limited sick pay. However, in schools, just like many other professional settings, Occupational Health (i.e. the outsourced private company Medmark) and not the employee’s GP decide who is fit to be exposed to the virus and who is not. This has caused untold stress and anxiety for extremely high-risk teachers, SNAs and other school workers. It was deemed as acceptable to expose workers with conditions such as cancer or on dialysis to hundreds of people in a crowded setting each day. 

It is no surprise that it emerged in October of 2021 that retail and supermarket staff were hardest hit by Covid-19 in the last two coronavirus waves to hit Ireland. CSO data shows that retail assistants, cashiers and checkout operators were the workers most likely to contract the virus in the second and third waves of the pandemic. This holiday season, in light of reports of increased threats and abuse of retail workers, there was a call from trade unions such as Mandate for companies to pay them more given that retail workers must tolerate much more in their line of work, not only the increased risk of catching the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but also the increased stresses associated with long queues, enforcement of Covid safety protocols, and abuse from customers. 

However, this kind of lobbying from the unions is insufficient and only a small number of businesses have agreed to pay their retail staff hazard pay. Contrast this with record profits made by the big players of the retail sector over the course of the pandemic. Tesco, with an average hourly wage of €11.47, made a staggering €1 million extra a day last year! Aldi Ireland says its profits increased by 46% last year to €71.2 million. 

Childcare

The harsh lockdown and school closures put in place between January and April 2021 in schools caused untold difficulty for families already struggling, especially those with children with additional needs or other emotional, behavioural and learning difficulties. For them, due to the total absence of free, community-based childcare, school is the only lifeline: a routine for the child or young person, and respite for the family who must take on the full burden of specialised care with little or no help from the state. 

However, this is not just an Additional Educational Needs issue. All working families with children understand that the lack of affordable childcare is a huge obstacle and financial burden. School is often the only place where they can leave their child so that they can go to work. It cannot come as a surprise that many parents and guardians had no option but to send their symptomatic child to school, leaving it to the school to make the decision to send them home or not. 

Thankfully, the narrative of the government that “schools are safe” has lost all credibility. There is now widespread acknowledgement that schools are major drivers of the pandemic globally. It is becoming more and more clear that Covid-19 spreads just as much among children as it does among adults. Most importantly, children, teenagers, and adults appear to pose a similar transmission risk, with children, adolescents, and adults similarly likely to infect other household members. 

We need more than respect. We need investment. 

While current campaigns that call for respect for certain key workers such as SNAs and retail staff are an important initiative, history has shown us that the ruling class will never concede any substantial gains unless the collective power of workers is leveraged against them. School workers such as SNAs and teachers must stand in solidarity with, and advocate for, those who need their services the most. However, they must also appreciate the power they hold if they decide to withhold their essential labour and engage in industrial action, which could see improvements made both for themselves and the communities that they serve. 

It’s clear that the pandemic has brought into relief the obscene inequality that exists in our society. Retail giants have benefitted massively from lockdowns, but the exploitation of their employees has gotten worse and wealthy meat factory bosses to oversee some of the worst working conditions in the country. If the state cares little about the conditions of workers in other essential settings, it is, therefore, no surprise that our schools, in which a huge section of the population interact every day, would be so neglected. 

In light of the current phase of the pandemic, school workers and their unions must call for:

  • An immediate rolling out of contact tracing in schools overseen by the public health system.
  • Free, unlimited antigen tests and FPP2 masks at the reception of all school buildings.
  • A centralised roll out of ventilation in all schools to be carried out by specialists employed directly by the Department of Education.
  • Paid leave for all workers in all sectors who have to isolate themselves, or with their children.
  • Paid sick leave for all workers.
  • Workplace health and safety protocols negotiated and agreed upon by members of the school community.
  • Fast track the construction of new school buildings and the retrofitting of old buildings for improved ventilation and functionality. Cut out the profiteers, bring the major construction companies into public ownership so that schools, homes and hospitals can be built at cost price. 
  • Permanent state-paid contracts for ancillary school staff such as cleaners, caretakers and secretaries. An end to the outsourcing of cleaners.
  • End the outsourcing of Occupational Health in education.
  • Scale back the curriculum to focus on student wellbeing and adjust state exams to reflect this. Scrap the Leaving Cert. Provide free access (with no fees) to third level to all those who want it. 
  • A global, patent-free vaccine accessible to all to save lives and slow the mutation of further Covid-19 variants. Seize and requisition the resources of big pharma, democratic public ownership can mean an end to vaccine apartheid globally.