New advice on face mask rules for schools due shortly

School managers warn ‘pandemic is not over’ amid student and staff absences

New advice on whether face masks should remain mandatory in schools is expected shortly.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said the National Public Health Emergency Team is due to meet on Thursday next to review safety measures in schools such as mask wearing, physical distancing and other limits on school activities.

Updated guidance is due to issue in advance of the return of school following the mid-term break on February 28th.

Ms Foley said public health measures which have applied in schools have been a source of reassurance for many.

She said she understood the challenges posed by risk mitigation measures but said they had allowed the return of in-person teaching.

“It has been difficult for [them], but they have adapted so resiliently and so superbly. I do know that everyone, like wider society, is looking forward to a time when we don’t have to enforce those measures.

“Everything in terms of how we’re operating will be reviewed ahead of the 28th February and we’ll follow what the public health advice is at that time,” she said.

Pupils in England have not been required to wear face coverings in classrooms or school buildings since last month, while face mask rules are under review in other parts of the UK.

School managers and teachers' unions in Ireland say they are opposed to a sudden relaxation of measures give the extent to which Covid-19 is continuing to circulate in schools.

Séamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 primary schools, urged a cautious easing of restrictions.

“The pandemic may be over for much of the public, but it is not over for schools,” he said.

“We’re seeing high level of absences among staff and pupils. The lack of substitute cover has re-emerged as a really serious issue for schools.”

He said a phased approach was best to allow a gradual return to more normal school and classroom conditions.

“Schools are being presented with challenges that the wider public may not be aware of. Omicron is continuing to work its way through primary and it is still a very challenging time,” he said.

Infection control

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said any relaxation of school infection control measures should be delayed for at least two more months unless public health authorities can confirm the situation in primary schools will improve dramatically in the coming weeks.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said he believed the level of infection within primary schools has not been captured properly.

He said the “scrapping” of public health risk assessments in schools, along with contact tracing and PCR testing, meant the system is being kept in the dark.

The latest official weekly report on the incidence of the virus – from January 30th to February 5th – indicates that cases among children of school-going age are below the national average.

While there were 761 cases per 100,000 people recorded over the period, the rate among primary school-aged pupils was 712 per 100,000 and 625 per 100,000 for secondary school-aged students.

Mr Boyle said teacher unions and school management expect to meet public health advisers and Department of Education officials soon to review the first five weeks of the new term and to begin planning for the period up to the Easter holidays.

“The INTO will be advocating for quicker response times from public health, which were promised by government in the event of multiple cases in schools, to be delivered and for any relaxation of schools infection prevention and control measures to be delayed for two more months at least, unless public health can confirm that the situation in primary schools will improve dramatically in the next three week,” he said.

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