A national school principal in Co Westmeath has described Monday’s planned changes in contact tracing for children as “slightly illogical” as the country’s biggest teachers’ union has called for a delay in changing the rules.
Under the changes, children under 13 who are close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases in schools or childcare will no longer be required to self-isolate from September 27th if they are symptom-free.
The move will reduce disruption to schools and means thousands of children who have been forced to self-isolate will be able to return to the classroom.
Matt Melvin of St Etchen's National School in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland that, in his experience, "there have never been more cases in schools than there are now" and that he believed the same situation applied in other schools across the country.
However, public health sources believe an increase in detected cases among primary school earlier this month was linked to a four-fold increase in testing and say case numbers have stabilised over the last 10 days or so.
Mr Melvin called for an explanation as to why a child with a head cold could be sent home from school, while a close contact could remain in the classroom. In his school at present there was a class and two pods operating out of the classroom which were working quite well, he said.
Parents were happy that the children attending school were “healthy, happy and educated”, he said. Mr Melvin added that his school also operated a pre-school for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for whom Covid restrictions had not changed.
Household close contacts
The easing of close contact rules will not apply to children who are household close contacts of positive cases due to higher risks of disease transmission in these settings.
They will still be required to restrict movements and get tested, regardless of symptomatic status. This includes children on a sleep-over, for example.
Testing and tracing of close contacts in primary schools or childcare will be discontinued.
Due to the enhanced risk to vulnerable students, existing rules will continue to apply to primary school students who attend special schools or special classes.
Meanwhile the Irish National Teachers' Organisation general secretary John Boyle said the changes should be deferred "until reliable data on outbreaks in primary schools is available".
He proposed that any change should be made from November 1st when the schools reopen after mid-term break. “This would allow time for better data to be obtained and sufficient time for considered analysis and to allow for the proposed changes to be implemented in an orderly fashion,” he said.
Dr Abigail Collins, the HSE's clinical lead on child health told Morning Ireland that from the public health perspective it was important that responses were evaluated and proportionate.
“The balance of the benefits and the harms of excluding well children, not children with symptoms who we would be concerned about, from society and not just from school, is something that needs to be addressed and considered.”
Schools remained a low risk setting, she said.
“We know that within the household setting the risk of transmission has always been the highest there, so therefore it’s appropriate that we keep those children out of school and have that precautionary approach.”
Dr Collins acknowledged that children with special needs were medically vulnerable so a risk assessment would be required in their cases as there was a different level of contact between them and their carers and SNAs.
“For the vast majority of children, it’s appropriate that we consider whether the thousand plus children who are completely well, who are being excluded from society, is a price that we should reasonably be asking them to pay.”
Dr Collins said it was up to parents to gauge if their child was well enough to go to school, if they had a runny nose and no other symptoms, then they should go to school. Parents would know if their child was “off form” and should keep them home from school and speak to their GP.
Personally she thought that the country was now on the pathway to endemic rather than pandemic, the vaccination programme had made the difference.