Covid-19: School concerned about outbreak ordered to reopen

Department of Education in contact after principal announced plan to close early for Christmas

The Department of Education has warned schools that they should not close until December 22nd. File photograph: Getty

The Department of Education has warned schools that they should not close until December 22nd. File photograph: Getty

 

A Co Mayo school which announced it was to close due to Covid-19 concerns is to reopen on Monday following an order by the Department of Education.

Claremorris Boys National School informed parents on Thursday night it was to close early for the Christmas holidays due to a dozen cases of coronavirus among its 125 pupils.

However, department officials contacted the school on Friday afternoon to say it could not close because public health authorities had not authorised such a move.

In a message posted on the school’s website, principal Mark Loftus said officials were “ insisting as the board of management are not health professionals, we cannot take this decision to close”.

“Therefore, we cannot close the school and from Monday must re-open,” he added. “Remote learning for those isolating should continue and normal school attendance for everyone else should resume on Monday December 14th. Sorry to be the bearer of that news.”

Earlier, the department had said in a statement that while it did not comment on individual cases, schools were required to follow public health advice on whether to close or not following Covid-19 cases.

‘Working tirelessly’

“While we understand that schools and principals have been working tirelessly through these unprecedented times, there is no public health rationale for altering agreed standardised school breaks,” said the spokesman.

“Schools will close for the Christmas holidays as arranged on Tuesday, December 22nd – not Friday December 18th. These holiday periods have been fixed to allow parents and the school communities to plan ahead for basic work, child minding necessities and any other family plans at this time of year.”

This is the second time a schools has been ordered to reopen. Last month, Tarbert Comprehensive School, a 520-pupil school in north Kerry, told pupils and parents it was closing immediately due to the need to protect the health of the school community.

However, it was ordered to reopen after the department said public health advice did not support the closure.

In the case of the Co Mayo school, the principal had previously expressed frustration at policies over cross-infection and the department’s insistance that the school remain open “at all costs”.

Mr Loftus said he had found it impossible to secure substitute staff to cover for absences because any substitute teacher available was too anxious to enter a school with an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak. He said the school felt it had had no choice but to close down to try to prevent further spread, especially in the run up to Christmas.

Co Laois school closes

The Irish Primary Principals’ Network expressed support for the Co Mayo school’s actions and said boards of management should be allowed to close a school if they felt it was in the best interests of pupils.

Páiric Clerkin, the network’s chief executive, said while schools should seek to remain open, there are cases where boards of management may have to make difficult decisions.

“I respect any board’s decision in these matters. They are the ones trying to enure schools are safe and remain open and they will only make decisions that are in the best interests of the school community,” he said.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, meanwhile, has called for greater clarity on whether Covid-19 cases in schools are driving community transmission.

The ASTI notes that internationally initiatives are being taken to investigate the extent of school-to-community transmission, including mass testing of second-level pupils in the south east of England.

“It is clear that there is a lack of knowledge about the extent of such transmission. The ASTI believes that similar work needs to be carried out in relation to Irish second-level schools,” it said.

“In addition, there is a need for improved communications with school communities where outbreaks occur.”

Mass testing

Latest figures show 60 cases detected in schools last week following mass testing of 2,368 students and staff in primary, post-primary and special education schools.

The latest figures indicate a 63 per cent increase in the number of positive cases in tested schools over the past week, with the positivity rate rising from 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent.

Despite this increase, transmission of the virus remains low across schools. Health experts previously described the positivity rate of 2.3 per cent in mid-October as “reassuring” and said numbers indicated efforts to prevent virus spread had been “very successful”.

The vast majority of cases detected over the last week were in primary schools (55 cases) while just five cases were found in secondary schools. There were no cases found in special education schools.

Nearly 90 per cent of cases were recorded among students or under-18s with just 11 per cent of cases recorded among staff or over-18s. The testing was carried out in 61 primary schools, 42 secondary schools and four special education schools.