Covid-19: Principals optimistic schools will remain low-risk settings

Hope for tours, sports matches and indoor activities to resume in months ahead

School leaders are hopeful they will be able to resume tours, sports matches and indoor activities over the coming months as public health restrictions begin to ease.

As most primary and secondary schools reopen this week, principals say there is greater confidence this year that safety measures and high levels of vaccination will help to avoid any need for large-scale school closures.

Brian O’Doherty, president of the Irish Primary Principals Network, said the “landscape has changed” this year and there is cautious optimism that schools will remain low-risk environments for Covid-19.

“Confidence levels are greater this time. There was much greater concern last year over how effective safety measures would be, but the statistics show that infections levels and transmission levels were low in schools,” he said.

“Much of our work in schools this week is about re-embedding those safety protocols in schools.”

While the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus was a source of concern, he said school leaders advocated a cautious approach to easing restrictions such as the gradual resumption of after-school activities such as Irish dancing, ballet and basketball, which have been curtailed since March of last year.

“These are the activities that enrich the school experience... but we will be guided by public health advice on what is doable and achievable.”

Michael Cregan, president of the second-level National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said the resumption of sports matches and school tours over the coming months would be a hugely positive step.

"Now that Croke Park can take 40,000 spectators and public transport is moving to 100 per cent capacity, we hope that matches and school tours will be able to resume over the coming months," he said.

"Ultimately, we will follow public health guidelines. There is massive respect for Tony Holohan and Nphet [National Public Health Emergency Team]. The advice given to schools has worked so far. Schools have, by and large, been safe spaces."

Primary schools

While principals are are hopeful that restrictions will ease, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has called for a review of the use of face masks for primary school children. It says there are concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19 in primary schools as children return from their summer holidays due to the Delta variant. This, coupled with the fact that vaccines are not being offered to children under 12, has lead to fears that primary school children will be at greater risk of catching the virus.

Nphet has asked the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) to examine whether children under 13 should wear a mask indoors. Mask-wearing for children is currently limited to those aged 13 and over when on public transport, in shops and in secondary schools.

The last Hiqa review on reducing the age of mandatory mask-wearing was published in March. At the time, the health watchdog did not recommend any changes to the current advice, meaning children aged 12 and under are not required to wear a mask indoors.

Hiqa has also been asked to provide advice on whether the current minimum age for mask-wearing requirements should be reduced.

“We will shortly publish a protocol outlining what information will be considered. We anticipate publishing this advice in September,” the statement said.

John Boyle, general secretary of INTO, welcomed the review and expressed concern about pregnant teachers' fears of returning to school.

Covid-19 vaccines are only offered after 14 weeks of pregnancy. This means teachers in the early stages of pregnancy will be returning to the classroom unvaccinated, as the option of remote working is no longer available to them due to a recent change in guidance from the Department of Education.