HSE initiative aims to help schools deal with Covid outbreaks

Priority testing and phone line will assist pupils and staff in fighting pandemic

When a positive Covid-19 case is identified, the public health team members will contact schools and help undertake an initial risk assessment.

When a positive Covid-19 case is identified, the public health team members will contact schools and help undertake an initial risk assessment.

 

New multidisciplinary Health Service Executive “school teams” have been established to help manage Covid-19 outbreaks among student and staff populations.

Priority testing and a special seven-day phone line to enable principals seek guidance on what to do when a case of the virus is identified are also being put in place.

Details of the new supports were released to schools on Monday morning as students were returning for the new term.

They have been welcomed by teaching unions with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) noting that the inclusion of education officials in the teams would help them better understand the specific environments.

Led by public health professionals, the teams will include education inspectors reassigned to the HSE, temporarily replacing their normal duties.

When a positive Covid-19 case is identified, the public health team members will contact schools and help undertake an initial risk assessment. They will also be able to inform schools of any further actions required.

Inspectors and other team members will respond to queries from the HSE’s new Covid-19 Principal School Line, designed to provide public health guidance in responding to confirmed cases.

Contact identification

The school teams will also assist with gathering required information from principals to help identify close contacts, who will in turn be contacted by school management. The HSE will then notify them of their test appointment.

These will now be issued as a priority in cases of school-based close contacts through a specific referral process.

Testing swabs for a school group will be sent to a laboratory as a “red-flagged” batch and be processed with reference numbers to allow batch reporting of results for the particular school.

Responding to the layered processes put in place on Monday, INTO general secretary John Boyle said staffing of the new teams by education officials and a commitment to fast testing was welcome.

“The department must ensure this new service delivers a significant improvement in support to schools, ensuring no principal is left waiting for days for a risk assessment or public health guidance,” he said.

The organisation has also acknowledged an updated definition of “close and casual contacts” in school settings published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) on Friday, which it had sought.

Union engagement

These include any person who has had face-to-face contact within less than one metre with a confirmed case of Covid-19 for more than 15 minutes in a school day.

It also includes anyone who has been between one and two metres from a confirmed case for more than 15 minutes but taking into account mitigating factors such as face-coverings, pods and ventilation.

However, while acknowledging the various measures, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for “ongoing, robust engagement” between unions, the Department of Education and public health authorities to “ensure that the concerns of teachers are fully addressed”.

It has also reiterated its call for an audit of schools to ensure they have the required resources to ensure full compliance with public health advice.

“We welcome the clarifications provided today to schools. These are issues that we raised,” said general secretary Michael Gillespie in a statement on Monday. “However, teachers have a range of concerns that need to be addressed on an ongoing basis.”

Mr Gillespie pointed out that a recent survey of members found 71 per cent did not believe enhanced allocations provided in response to Covid-19 had been sufficient.