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Dr MATT TREACY: It would be a huge mistake to shut the schools again 

On Saturday, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) decided at a meeting of its national executive to ballot its members on strike action. Although part of this concerns the on-going and legitimate concern over the status and pay grades of some teachers, it is evident that the main issue is the re-opening of schools.

According to ASTI President Ann Pigott, teachers are concerned about the social distancing in place, the apparent shortage of PPE and the turnaround in testing. Pigott also referred to “crisis opportunism,” which could clearly apply to several parties involved in all of this.

If teachers vote to strike, the action will be taken in October. The other second level union, the Teachers Union of Ireland, has made similar complaints with regard to the issues referred to by ASTI but has not yet said anything regarding possible strike action. If ASTI members do vote for a strike it will close second level schools which might also have implications for primary schools if teachers raise similar concerns there.

School closures affected somewhere around 90% of students at all levels globally when the virus first struck. However, not all countries went that route and a comparison between their experience and that of countries which implemented more stringent measures would indicate that they have fared little differently to anywhere else.

Indeed, it looks likely that Sweden, by eschewing a draconian lockdown and not pushing the wearing of masks, may actually be further on the road to creating the “herd immunity” that will be key to at least limiting the spread of the virus.

Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient proportion of the population has become immune either through vaccination or having already been exposed to the virus. That makes transmission less likely, and if a certain threshold has been reached – as it has in the past with measles endemics for example – then the threat is overcome.

In the context of the threatened school strike we will concentrate on the age groups affected as a measure of what impact school closures have had or are likely to have compared to Sweden.

According to the HSE just one person under the age of 24 has died in the Republic, which accounts for 0.06% of all the deaths due to Covid 19. Just 3.5% of cases have been among children aged under 14, and just over 13% among people under the age of 24; in other words the cohort that comprises the vast bulk of students at all levels.

The statistics regarding hospitalisation are even more illustrative of the minimal impact which the virus has for those age groups; less than 4% of cases among those under 24, and less than 2% of those under the age of 14 have necessitated hospital treatment.

While Irish schools were closed for six months, Swedish schools remained open all that time. The Swedish Government did pass an act on the same day that schools here closed on March 13 giving it the power to enforce temporary closures but that was only applied to upper secondary (begins at 16 or 17) , adult education and third level.

Keeping schools open had no impact on the contraction or transmission of Covid 19, and other Nordic countries have since, including Denmark which re-opened primary schools in April. Normally anything that states like Sweden and Denmark do would be Holy Writ to Irish liberals and lefties who are united across the political spectrum from Fine Gael through Sinn Féin to the far left on the need to treat us all like children.

The Swedish statistics are quite similar to here in fact with regard to the age group in full time education. Just one Swedish person under the age of 20 had died up to September 17. The age cohorts for comparative purposes are officially listed differently between Sweden and Ireland but covering those who comprise most students the death rate in Sweden for those under 29 was 0.2% of all Covid deaths up to September 18; and is currently 0.33% for under 34s here.

The evidence then would confirm that closing schools here has made no difference to the impact of the virus. Just as in Ireland, the vast majority of people who have died in Sweden and who have had Covid have been among the retired and elderly.

Of total deaths in Sweden 89% were among those aged 70 and over; while 96% of deaths here were among people aged 65 and over. And as here, most of the deaths of elderly people were of people who had serious underlying conditions. Much of the scale of death in Swedish care homes was also attributed to poor management of the homes which facilitated the outbreaks.
As a measure of where Sweden is now we can look at the 14 day rate for cases. In the Republic this is currently 60 per 100,000, and 129 per 100,000 in Dublin. Sweden stands at 30.3 per 100,000.

So in the midst of a growing hysteria which has seen “dissenting” medical and other professionals targeted and even sacked for raising questions about the current approach here, it is certainly valid to ask whether others might have gotten it right. At the very least, it is clear that after more than seven months of all of this, that the more strict regulations imposed here have made no difference to the overall impact of Covid 19.

That is in relation to the direct health impact of the virus. They have of course made a massive and detrimental difference to the way in which people are forced to live their lives.

There are a whole range of statistics illustrating that domestic abuse including rape, suicide, substance abuse and others have gotten worse as people struggle to cope with the new situation that at this stage shows little sign that it will come to an end any time soon.

Most people of course do not succumb to their own dark side, nor fall victim to others. The resilience of people remains despite the undermining of a vast range of social relations connected to sport, religion, music, and many other little things that provide meaning to our lives, even when they are occasionally beset by financial and other woes mostly beyond our control.

The economic consequences of the path being pursued by this state seemingly with the support of an entire media and political elite with very few exceptions, are being greatly exacerbated by the closing down of all those other avenues for human intercourse.

So we must ask the question: what exactly would be served by shutting down the schools again when the evidence proves that it makes no difference to how this virus operates or the consequences it will have. We do know what the consequences of depriving children and young adults of education will be, just as we know what the consequences of many other deliberate attempts to unravel the social fabric are.

The question then for those in whose hands the power to determine what happens in the schools lies is: Which is more important; the illusion of reducing what is already a minimal risk to pupils and teachers, or keeping this country together in some manner that does not sow the seeds of even greater social dysfunction.

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