Nokuzola Phiri, a single mother from South Africa has three daughters. Every weekday, she walks her daughters to a school in the city and picks them up.
So far, the current nationwide lockdown has not affected this routine.
Phiri says parents are not allowed beyond the school gates so they huddle outside close to each other, chatting and waiting. “All the parents gather outside to pick up their kids, no social distancing, and not everyone wears masks,” she says.
Phiri and her family have been living in Dublin Central Inn on Talbot Street, since March which is currently being run as a direct-provision centre.
She worries that her daughters might bring back the virus from the school to their centre, where she lives with others. “We all use the same kitchen, and there is only one mop for people to use,” she says.
She turns to her youngest daughter and asks if they are meant to practice social distancing in school. The child says yes. But Phiri laughs.
“They’re kids. They can’t even understand the virus. I don’t think there is any social distancing with small kids,” she says.
Some parents living communally in a direct-provision centre in the city say they’re extra-worried about the possibility that Covid-19 will spread from schools to their centres.
But Phiri says she has no choice but to send her children to school.
Her children don’t have access to laptops needed for the remote-learning programmes for students whose parents are reluctant to send them to school during the lockdown, says Phiri. “They have to at least have tablets.”
A Rise in Outbreaks
School is the closest thing to normalcy for her 10-year-old son, says Simelokuhle Ndlovu. “He’s free there, and he can play and be with his friends.”
But that doesn’t stop Ndlovu, who also lives in Dublin Central Inn, from worrying, she says. “If they say it’s a lockdown and people should not meet, then how come so many kids coming from different households can go to school?”
According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), which monitors infectious diseases in Ireland, school-associated outbreaks rose sharply the week ending 17 October.
That week, the HPSC recorded 46 outbreaks associated with school children or staff – an 84 percent increase from the previous week when there were 25 outbreaks.
According to the HPSC’s website, these outbreaks “are outbreaks associated with school children or school staff. Transmission of COVID-19 within the school has not necessarily been established in these outbreaks.”
Ndlovu had the virus before, she says. When she was living in Skellig Star Hotel, a now shuttered direct-provision centre in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.
As more people fell sick, the HSE locked the centre down, preventing asylum seekers from going outside for a month, she says.
The experience has made her wary, Ndlovu says, and the threat of a school-related outbreak in their centre feels too real for her. “You never know,” she says, lifting her eyebrows.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland has called for a higher level of engagement with officials and extra protections to be put in place for teachers during the current six-week lockdown.
The Department of Education, in line with HSE’s advice, drafted a roadmap for the safe reopening of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic in July, said a spokesperson for the HSE.
The document re-emphasises the standard safety recommendations for living with the virus: hand-washing, keeping physical distance, sticking to cough etiquette and environmental hygiene.
It says school staff, parents and children must be all acutely aware of the virus’s hidden presence, but that the advice is not appropriate for younger students.
Another documentpublished by HPSC says that child-to-child transmission of the virus is rare, emphasising the importance of fulfilling children’s educational needs.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said it hadn’t had any reports of school-associated outbreaks spreading to direct-provision centres.
Protective gear is available in the centres and they promptly transfer sick residents to offsite self-isolation facilities, they said. “Over half of the families accommodated in our centres are now living in own-door accommodation.”
Bulelani Mfaco, a spokesperson for Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI), says the group appreciates the positive impact of going to school on children in direct-provision centres.
“Schools provide children some sort of normality that takes them away from the situation in direct-provision centres due to the sharing of intimate living spaces,” Mfaco says.
It’s no doubt a mental relief, he says, but safety concerns cannot be underestimated. “We are concerned about reports of growing outbreaks in schools as this can easily affect direct provision centres.”
In October 2018, 1778 children lived in direct provision centres across the state, according to a reportpublished by Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
A Tough Choice
Phiri says if she had a choice, she would prioritise health over education, especially for students like her daughters who are staying in hostels and hotels.
“They say education is a priority but I say health should be a priority,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ndlovu says she worries about being reinfected and unable to recover this time. She frequently thought about death when she first fell ill, she says.
“My son always told me, ‘Mummy, you’re not going to die’, but I don’t know what happens now that they’re going to school,” she says.