For the past year principal Rachel Harper says Hepa air filters and risk mitigation measures have helped keep Covid-19 at bay in St Patrick's National School, Greystones, Co Wicklow.
That all began to change in the final weeks of 2021 as the Omicron variant took hold in the community.
“We only had about five cases in the school over an 18-month period but, just before Christmas, we suddenly had 10 to 15 cases,” she says.
“There is definite concern with the new variant. It’s going to be really challenging ... whatever decision is made on reopening, we’ll follow the public health advice and do our best.”
They are sentiments shared across the school sector. Even though principals have had to contend with the pandemic for almost two years, there is apprehension and anxiety over the scale of the virus in the community and the impact of the new variant in classrooms.
Teachers’ unions and school managers have been fielding queries from worried members and principals over recent days.
The concerns are two-fold. First, there is the impact of the more contagious Omicron variant in classroom settings against a backdrop of record case numbers in the community. Second, there is uncertainty over the capacity of schools or classes to operate with many staff forced to self-isolate.
Teachers’ unions say they are alarmed at the prospect of schools reopening without additional safety measures being put in place to protect students and staff.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has proposed a “delayed and staggered” reopening of schools. It says face-to-face teaching of examination classes should be prioritised.
"The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place to protect all concerned," said ASTI president Eamon Dennehy.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said schools be allowed to choose how they reopen based on their circumstances, as no two schools will be the same in terms of staff availability due to the effects of the pandemic.
"There will inevitably be restrictions on the number of students who will be able to attend school due to teacher shortages. Clearly, any situation where groups of students in attendance cannot be supervised is unacceptable on health and safety grounds," said TUI general secretary, Michael Gillespie.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) wants quicker response times from public health where multiple cases arise in a school and stronger measures to monitor infection levels in schools.
At a meeting between teachers’ unions , school managers and public health officials on Tuesday, however, the possibility of delaying the reopening of schools was quickly dismissed.
Sources present at the meeting say 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,” said one source. “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.”
Public health officials said their review of risk mitigation measures shows that schools are “not significant drivers of transmission” and have played a very important role in terms of prevention and control measures.
“There wasn’t much push-back to this from anyone at the meeting,” added one source at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Department of Education officials said schools are being advised to operate in line with their Covid-19 response plans and follow guidance
Guidance for parents and students on ensuring symptomatic students and household close contacts do not attend school will be issued through a communications campaign, while further clarification around close contacts and others.
Whether this will be enough to satisfy unions, in particular, remains to be seen.
While schools are due to reopen on Thursday, a bigger challenge will be finding enough staff to keep them open.
Some schools, for example, have already told parents that they cannot open for several days due to teachers designated as positive or close contacts and are finding it impossible to source substitutes.
Harper says two of her 12 mainstream teachers are positive cases, so the school may be forced to draw on learning support teachers to fill the gap. It’s a dilemma facing many other schools.
“There were no substitute teachers available before Christmas and we don’t expect it will be any better. That is my biggest concern now: ensuring we get through this next period with enough staff.”