Primary and secondary schools are due to reopen on Thursday, January 6th, after public health officials advised that there is “no rationale” to keep schools closed beyond this week.
The Department of Education confirmed the reopening plan following meetings with the Minister, Norma Foley, public health representatives, teachers' unions and school managers on Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, the department said all parties recognised the importance to students of in-school teaching and learning, and the need for all in the school community to following existing Covid-19 mitigation measures.
Following a review of risk mitigation measures in schools, public health officials advised that current safety measures were “effective and appropriate”.
“Schools will operate in line with their Covid-19 response plans, which set out a range of mitigation measures for schools, including hand hygiene, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Schools have also been provided with guidance on maintaining good ventilation,” according to the department statement.
“Guidance for parents and students on ensuring symptomatic students and household close contacts should not attend school is being issued through a communications campaign as well as directly through schools.
“Further to today’s meetings, clarifications and further information will issue to schools from public health and the department tomorrow in advance of schools reopening.”
Sources present at the meeting say the public health advice was that there was no rationale in closing schools given the level of virus circulating in the wider community,
“The virus is everywhere. Households are the biggest drivers of infection, so closing schools is not being advised, especially given the impact this would have on more vulnerable children,” said one source.
“The advice remains that schools are not significant drivers of transmission. They have played a very important role in terms of prevention and control measures.”
Ms Foley said on Twitter that she was “conscious of the demands and challenges that this will bring for school communities” but she appreciated their “goodwill and determination to put the needs of students first”.
“We know that children and young people are best served by in-person teaching and learning, and this remains a priority,” she added.
Earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said schools would reopen this week as things stand.
“The plan is that schools and colleges will go back, in the unlikely event that there’s any changes to that plan, it’ll be something for the Minister for Education to announced, but as things stand, schools and colleges go back as normal in January. It’s really important that kids have their education, we know the damage that school closures do to kids, and I think if they were not to open on Thursday, you’d have to ask the question of when they would open.”
Teaching unions called for clarity on Covid-19 isolation measures, ahead of the reopening of schools in the coming days.
Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), said that public health advice was needed about the duration of self-isolation for people infected with Covid-19, so teachers and students will know if they can return to school.
“We need to get an idea of the numbers in schools that will be missing,” he told Newstalk Breakfast on Tuesday.
“A lot of members couldn’t get PCR tests, but they did test positive with antigen tests, they had symptoms.
“There’s a lack of clarity as to how many days they need to isolate – is it from their PCR test, is it from their antigen test – that will have a big effect on school reopenings – we need that sort of certainty,” he said.
Mr Gillespie said students in exam years and those in special education classes needed to be prioritised, to “make sure they’re able to return if there are staffing issues in schools,” he said.
The union official said it was too early to say if calls for a staggered return to classrooms would work. The situation was not “one size fits all” as schools would have different levels of attendance, he said.
Mr Gillespie said that the TUI had always advocated for disadvantaged students and they were very much aware of the impact of school closures on such students.
The general secretary of ASTI, Kieran Christie, said teachers were committed to the reopening of schools in a coherent and sensible fashion that would work for everybody, but there was “considerable amount of unease” at the spread of Omicron.
“We feel that additional measures with regard to health and safety are and will be necessary,” he said.
“We want clarity in relation to the level of risk assessment that needs to be done in the context of the Omicron variant because we haven’t had an opportunity to look at how it operates in second-level schools and whether or not the mitigations that are in schools are sufficient and will hold up.”
Principals fear that anywhere from 10 to 50 per cent of teachers and students may be absent in schools on Thursday.
“Omicron is so radically different that it demands and it requires a whole new revision, or at least review, of everything that we’ve been doing and to supplement it and add to it so that we can get ourselves out from under this horrible pandemic once and for all,” he said.
“If everybody is allowed to walk in the door on Thursday morning in the hope that it’ll all be well, it probably won’t be in most cases and we’ll have chaos”.
The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, called for the Government to explore “all options” to keep students in classrooms, stating closing schools could not be “our default response”.
Dr Muldoon said the most vulnerable children and those with special needs would be “disproportionately affected” from closures. The negative impact of school closures on children’s learning and social development were “wider and deeper than missing a few weeks of classes,” he said.
The Ombudsman said “every safeguard” and safety measure should be exhausted, rather than “retreating” to previous responses used this time last year.
Fórsa trade union has said the ability of schools to be deemed safe would depend on the restoration of full contact tracing, extra public health supports, and an assessment of air quality in all classrooms.
Andy Pike, head of Fórsa’s education unit, said unions had been calling for better health and safety measures for more than a year, to address “obvious deficiencies” in schools.
“It is clear that not every school will be able to fully open due to the prevalence of Covid within the school population,” he said. Schools should reopen where a safe service could be provided, he said.
“However, where there are clear deficits in health and safety provision or where large numbers of staff are suffering from Covid related illness it may not be possible for every class to return from Thursday,” he said.