Proposal to close schools until end of January considered by Government

Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will meet on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue

The Government is considering proposals to close schools until the end of January due to rising Covid-19 levels.

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will meet on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue ahead of a final decision which is expected to be made by Ministers at a full Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Senior Government sources have warned schools will more than likely remain closed beyond January 11th. Some sources expect they will remain closed for at least an extra week and possibly two weeks or more.

Hospital Report

Most Ministers privately believe Cabinet will decide to delay the reopening of schools, although officials may be asked to examine keeping certain schools open in Level 5 such as special education schools.

It is understood Green Party Minister Catherine Martin has concerns around schools reopening given the extremely high prevalence of the disease throughout the country while numerous other Ministers have also expressed doubts that schools could safely reopen after January 11th.

On Monday the Teachers' Union of Ireland called for school reopenings to be delayed until at least January 18th.

TUI general secretary, Michael Gillespie said this would allow 14 days to determine if Level 5 measures have been effective.

“To re-open too early is recklessly to tempt fate,” he said in a statement issued ahead of a meeting with the Department of Education on Monday .

The primary teachers’ union, the INTO demanded that any decisions made regarding the re-opening of schools would be under-pinned by the most up-to-date public health advice. “In particular the INTO drew attention to the increasing number of young children who had tested positive for Covid-19 within the last two weeks and sought a thorough analysis of these figures relating to any new variants of the virus.” the union said in a statement following a meeting with Minister for Education Norma Foley on Monday afternoon.

The INTO also reiterated its demand that education workers be given higher prioritisation for Covid-19 vaccination; that regular serial testing be arranged for all school staff and that a full review of the wearing of face-coverings by primary school pupils be undertaken.

The Labour Party also wrote to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan to request that the State’s public health team carry out an urgent risk assessment on the reopening of schools in the next 24 hours.

Party leader Alan Kelly and education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin made the request amid concerns at what they say are “shockingly high” Covid-19 figures.

“The public would greatly benefit from understanding the analysis and projections available to Nphet on how many infections are expected by the end of the week. We are particularly concerned that without increased testing capacity and a robust tracing system it is very difficult to see how schools can reopen, as there won’t be a mechanism to track down cases as they arise.

“That is why we are writing to ask you if Nphet will consider urgently carrying out a public health risk assessment in the next 24 hours on the potential reopening of primary and secondary schools on 11th January.

“It is our view this is needed as quickly as possible so that families, workers and school communities will know what will happen next week and can adequately plan and prepare,” they wrote.

The two Labour TDs have also called for various opening options that would allow some teaching activity to continue in schools for identified cohorts such as the children of essential workers, vulnerable pupils and exam students.

Minister for Education, Norma Foley, also spoke to the Opposition education spokespeople on Monday after meeting unions. The Opposition say they do not believe schools will open on Monday as planned.

Speaking after the meeting, Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said it is “very difficult to imagine how schools can reopen safely and sustainably when the virus is as widespread as it is.”

“Schools and parents need time to prepare, for next week, if schools are closed or if remote learning is going to take place. Delaying a decision on this only adds to the problem. Likewise is the failure of the Department to develop contingency plans,” he said.

Ms Foley did not comment after the meeting.

Meanwhile Damien White of the Primary Principals’ Association suggested schools should not reopen until January 18th, arguing that would allow the current surge to abate and contact tracing to be re-established.

In what is being interpreted in political circles as a change of tone, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the situation was evolving rapidly and schools were part of an ongoing conversation in Government.

Ministers wanted to give as much notice as possible to schools and families, he said.

Long-scale shutdown

Earlier, the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said the Government wants to avoid a “long-scale shutdown” of schools and childcare facilities because it would not be beneficial for children, especially for those with special needs or in disadvantaged areas.

Mr O’Gorman said the situation was under constant review.

Mr O’Gorman said the advice from Nphet had always been that schools were safe places, and the decision to delay their reopening until January 11th was part of a sustained effort to reduce movements in the community and to halt transmission of the virus.

“We do want to avoid a long-scale shutdown, but we are keeping the situation under review. If the public health guidance from Nphet changed at any stage, obviously Government policy would change.”

As for the position of the educational sector on the vaccination priority list, the Minister said that if there were changes in the sector then that position would be reviewed.

Level 5 restrictions had been introduced on December 24th and December 30th and it would take 10 to 14 days for their impact to be seen.

Mr O’Gorman told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the Government would do more if necessary but “we need to give the restrictions time to work”.

A daily record of 4,962 Covid-19 cases was confirmed on Sunday, pushing overall infection numbers beyond the 100,000-mark.

Creches

Mr O’Gorman defended the Government’s plan for crèches to remain open to care for the children of essential workers. When asked if there should be a second list to prioritise health care workers, Mr O’Gorman said that a second list would confuse the situation.

However, he did agree that crèches should prioritise cases where the parents could not work from home.

A long shut down of schools would not be good for children, he said, but the Government would keep the situation under review.

Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan has told RTÉ that, as far as she is aware, the decision has been made that schools will reopen next week.