There has been a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 outbreaks in schools, latest figures show.
Data compiled by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre shows a total of 46 outbreaks – two or more cases – were detected in primary and secondary schools last week, almost twice the number recorded a week previously.
However, the HSE said testing data from schools is reassuring, with a positivity rate of 2.3 per cent of close contacts across all school sectors, compared to more than 7 per cent in the wider community.
Overall, it said safety measures in schools were robust and have proved very successful.
“Clearly the increase of Covid-19 cases in the community does pose a challenge as there will be more cases in schools as a result, but it is important to note that these cases are not amplified within schools themselves.”
Primary principals, meanwhile, say they are forced to wait several days in many cases before receiving guidance from public health authorities once Covid-19 cases have been identified in their schools.
Under official protocols, public health doctors conduct risk assessments within 24 hours of a school being informed of a positive case. This determines how many staff or pupils should have to self-isolate or undergo testing.
However, a survey of 530 primary school principals conducted by the National Principals’ Forum last week indicates that many are waiting much longer and fear this may jeopardise the health of students and staff.
The poll found that just under 30 per cent of principals received calls from public heath authorities on the same day that a positive case was identified in a school.
However, the remainder of respondents said they were waiting for a further day (22 per cent), two days (16 per cent), three days (10 per cent) or between four days and a week (22 per cent).
On a more positive note, the vast majority of schools (92 per cent) felt they were well equipped with a Covid response plan, in the event of positive cases being identified.
However, the survey also found many primary school principals were worried about the capacity of their schools to implement social distancing rules for pupils.
Almost 60 per cent said one-metre social distancing rules were not possible for 3rd to 6th class pupils, in line with public health guidelines.
Most also reported problems accessing substitute teachers or special needs assistants due to higher rates of sick leave.
In comments supplied to the survey, some principals expressed concern that some parents were “not willing to inform schools of Covid tests” and sending sick children into school.
A separate survey by Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has found that 71 per cent of teachers do not believe that enhanced staffing allocation provided to their schools are sufficient to meet requirements.
The survey of 1,500 secondary and further education teachers identified more physical space, smaller class groups and more teachers as the measures they would most like to see from a given list to counter the risk of Covid-19.
TUI president Martin Marjoram said a key concern is uncertainty around the definition of "close contacts" in schools.
“A lack of consistency and clarity in this regard is causing severe stress and anxiety. The situation must be urgently reviewed so that school staff have trust in the system and understand the decision-making process,” he said.
In a statement, the HSE said the definition of a close contact within a school setting is variable and depends on a range of factors such as classroom structure, proximity to an index case, social networks and other factors.
It added that a rise in overall cases in the community had challenged public health teams considerably over the last weeks and had an impact on response times in schools.
The HSE said it acknowledged that it needs to have a swifter reaction and is aiming to have processes strengthened by the time schools return after the midterm break.
Teams of support people are being put in place across the departments of public health, which will be direct points of contact for schools and public health in the future.