The Health Service Executive has committed to assigning extra staff to the dedicated Covid-19 telephone helpline to help school principals struggling to cope with the surge in cases in schools.
The commitment was made at the weekly meeting with the Department of Education and teacher unions on Wednesday by Kevin Kelleher, HSE assistant national director, and Abigail Collins, head of the HSE's public health response team for Covid-19 in schools.
The HSE acknowledged at the meeting that the helpline for school principals had been extraordinarily busy in the first week since schools reopened and said that it would be assigning extra staff to help schools.
School principals and teachers’ unions have complained about delays in getting public health advice and public health officials responding to reports of Covid-19 cases among students.
Many schools are having to do their own contact tracing, putting schools under pressure to cope amid the increased number of infections. Most primary school children are unvaccinated as the Covid-19 vaccines are limited to children over the age of 12.
The testing system has come under extreme pressure as 14,000 children have been deemed to be a close contact of someone with the virus, forcing large numbers out of school into isolation at home.
"School principals are very concerned that they have had this long wait getting through to the HSE helpline," said Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland.
“They see it as a lot of wasted time and some of the time they are just looking for answers.”
Before the summer, when schools were open, principals had to manage lower levels of infections from the Alpha variant. In the past week, schools have reopened with the more contagious Delta variant in circulation and higher level of infections.
“There is an awful lot of concern about the high numbers,” Mr Gillespie said.
He said there was uncertainty around the Delta variant and what public health advice schools should follow when it comes to close contacts of fully vaccinated secondary school students who test positive and are symptomatic.
Fully vaccinated people do not have to self-isolate if they are close contacts of Covid-19 cases unless they develop symptoms, in which they case they must self-isolate.
The HSE has 30 people working the helpline for school principals. It received 336 calls on Monday, 183 calls on Tuesday and 207 calls on Wednesday.
HSE figures state that the average wait time on Wednesday was 36 seconds and that on average principals wait on average 45 minutes for a callback if the line is busy.
Some principals said they were waiting hours for a response earlier this week and called on the HSE to make the helpline a 24-hour service to support the schools while they were managing an increased number of cases.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris acknowledged that children having to isolate at home because they were close contacts of Covid-19 cases was causing "logistical chaos for parents".
“I can only imagine how difficult that must be for people. But it has to be about keeping everybody safe and following the best public health advice,” he said.
Mr Harris said that it made sense to keep the public health advice under review concerning the rules around children who are close contacts having to self-isolate.
The HSE confirmed that the public health teams dealing with Covid-19 cases in schools would be given additional resources in each HSE area with inspectors and other staff reassigned from within the health service.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said that an expanded administrative team has been set up to help the schools respond to cases with more than 80 staff in place.
“They will assist in verifying the details of close and ensure tests are booked in a timely manner,” she said.