The Government's decision to relax close contact rules for pupils in primary schools and childcare from next Monday has sparked "confusion and consternation", the biggest teachers' union in Ireland has warned.
Under the changes, children under 13 who are close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases in schools or childcare will no longer be required to self-isolate from September 27th if they are symptom free.
The move will reduce disruption to schools and means thousands of children who have been forced to self-isolate will be able to return to the classroom.
However, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said the decision was rushed and warned that its members still did not have answers to a range of questions over how the new regime will operate.
“There is confusion and consternation over this,” an INTO spokesman said. “Our members have lots of unanswered questions, but there is no clear guidance yet. We believe the decision should be slowed down until there is more reliable data.”
The Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) said that while the decision came as a surprise, school leaders will be guided by public health advice,
“School leaders are screaming for concise, coherent and consistent advice on how to manage risk in schools on the basis of the new arrangements,” said IPPN president Brian O’Doherty.
“We had concerns over whether it was premature to discontinue contact tracing, but we have always acted in accordance with public health advice and will be guided by it. We respect the fact that the decision was informed by data which was contextually analysed.”
While the HSE provided initial guidance to principals on Thursday morning, a more detailed document was due to be circulated late on Thursday or Friday morning.
The Government made the decision to ease close contact rules after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advised that there was no evidence that reopening schools had led to an increase in transmission of Covid-19 among school-going children.
Prof Philip Nolan of Nphet said positivity rates among close contacts in the 5-12 age group are down from 16 per cent to 5 per cent and the incidence has been stable for the last 10 days.
This data, he said, supported its experience from last year that schools were not major contributors or drivers of transmission.
Dim view from DCU expert
However, Prof Anthony Staines, professor in health systems at Dublin City University, said be believed the decision will hasten the spread of Covid-19 in primary schools.
“The plan is clearly to encourage infection in children, by not taking any effective measures. There are no masks in primary schools, no air filtration anywhere and limited monitoring of ventilation,” he said.
An exception to the rule change will apply in special education settings such as special schools or classes.
Autism charity AsIAm criticised the decision as “flagrant discrimination” and said vulnerable children will needlessly miss out on school.
Adam Harris, the charity's chief executive, said there was "no scientific evidence" on why students with additional needs should be required to remain at home if a close contact.
“The decision will lead to our community disproportionately losing out on teaching and learning at a critical time,” he said.