Covid-19: Confusion over whether children with runny noses should go to school

‘Contradictory’ advice on Covid symptoms for children, Oireachtas committee told

Minister for Education Norma Foley said  advice on Covid symptoms was based on engagement with public health authorities. Photograph: Conor McCabe

Minister for Education Norma Foley said advice on Covid symptoms was based on engagement with public health authorities. Photograph: Conor McCabe

 

Parents and schools are confused over “contradictory” Covid-19 advice on whether to keep children with runny noses out of school, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

While HSE advice says it is “usually ok” to send a child to school if they have a runny nose or a sneeze, the Department of Education’s guidance lists a runny nose or sore throat as uncommon symptoms of Covid-19.

Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireTD said the divergence was confusing parents and schools, who were trying to keep schools safe and minimise disruption.

Minister for Education Norma Foley told the Oireachtas education committee that her department’s advice was based on ongoing engagement with public health authorities.

“The advice from public health is that children should stay at home if they are unwell,” she said.

“It is a precautionary measure. There is the absolute understanding that parents know their own children best. If children are feeling unwell, then they should be kept at home.”

Ms Foley said this advice had been communicated to schools and parents in different languages and across social media, along with videos from public health officials.

“There is no confusion in relation to the information communicated directly to parents and directly to school leaders. It is the information which comes from the Department of Education, which in turn has come from the experts in public health who are dealing with schools.”

Mr Ó Laoghaire, however, said there remained an “incoherence” in the advice provided by different sources.

“It needs to be fixed. It’s unfair on principals, it’s unfair on schools and particular unfair on parents if they can find two different Government sources telling them two different things,” he said.

Bullying

The committee also heard that schools face inspections to ensure they are complying with official anti-bullying guidelines.

It follows concern over the extent to which children are being exposed to cyberbullying, in particular.

Ms Foley said these inspections by her department would focus on what type of bullying is taking place and how schools are implementing anti-bullying measures. Inspections will also examine examples of effective practice and highlight what steps are being taken to create a positive school culture.

The Minister said the experience of bullying can be a “deeply traumatic one” for children and stands in direct opposition to the sense of “security, opportunity, and nourishment which we hope all of our students feel in the school system”.

“I know that bullying experienced by even one child or young person is one too many and I commit to doing all that I can to prevent its occurrence,” she said.

“Coming from the school sector, I know how seriously this issue is treated by schools, but I also know we must do all that we can to support schools in addressing it.”

Ms Foley said she had also asked her department to review and update the national action plan on anti-bullying procedures for schools.

Separately, she said the new Online Safety and Media Bill includes important provisions to help prevent cyberbullying.

Independent regulation of online platforms – through a new online safety commissioner and a framework for the regulation of harmful online content – will have a significant impact in reducing harmful content online, she added.