Q&A: Will schools reopen fully after Easter?

Latest public health data indicates Covid-19 transmission in schools remains low

Q. What are the latest trends on the spread of Covid-19 in schools?
Public health data released on Tuesday evening indicates there is still a low level of transmission of Covid-19 in schools.

The HSE’s weekly mass testing report shows 2.7 per cent of close contacts of confirmed cases tested positive for the virus last week. This is an increase from 2.4 per cent the previous week but lower than the equivalent rate in the wider community and similar to school transmission rates last year.

Cases were detected among staff or students in 183 schools (up from 108 the previous week). On foot of close contact testing of just over 4,000 people, this resulted in 110 further positive cases.

Q. Covid-19 case numbers are rising among younger children. Are schools really that safe?
While cases among children of primary school going age have risen, public health authorities say only 10 per cent of these are associated with school outbreaks.

They have advised that “activities outside schools” such as playdates or households meeting up are some of the main factors behind the increase.

Q. How can public health experts be so sure cases among children are being spread in the community rather than schools?
Public health authorities say it is hard to make a definitive call on this, but they make a determination based on interviews, risk assessments and the pattern of positive cases.

Some critics have accused public health experts of deliberately downplaying the numbers linked to school transmission, but this is rejected by Dr Abigail Collins, HSE consultant in public health medicine.

She says there is total transparency over cases and if there are two unconnected cases in a schools, it is still defined as an outbreak.

“Widespread transmission is not usually what we see in a controlled environment like a school,” she says. “We’ve tested about 6,686 people during the phased return of schools and the overall positivity rate is 2.6 per cent.”

Q. At what point do case numbers or positivity rates pose a danger to schools reopening?
There is no defined threshold nationally or internationally at which schools are deemed unsafe.

The principle adopted by Government – and in most other countries – is that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen due to the impact closures have on children.

Given the fact that transmission rates remain low in schools, it seems a bigger threat is community transmission.

It is anyone’s guess at what level this will need to reach for authorities to decide to close schools.

It’s worth remembering that case numbers reached about 1,200 a day in October last year and schools still remained open.

Dr Collins says individual schools may be advised to close when public health authorities are concerned that there is transmission of the virus within a school or if more time and space is needed to investigate the source of an outbreak.

Q. How worried are teachers' unions about case numbers? Could their concerns lead to closures?
Senior sources in teachers' unions say they will be guided by public health advice on whether schools remain safe settings.

They are encouraged so far by the findings that are emerging in the HSE’s weekly mass testing reports of Covid-19 in schools. They also say that beefed-up public health teams which provide support to schools are – for the most part – working very well.

Q. How are public health experts defining close contacts in the event of a positive case in a school?
Public health authorities use two broad definitions: (1) Any person who has had face-to-face contact of less than 1 metre with a confirmed case of Covid-19 for more than 15 minutes in a school day; or (2) Any person who has been between one and two metres from a confirmed case for more than 15 minutes in a school day, with consideration of other mitigation measures such as face coverings, pods, ventilation, etc.

In light of the new UK variant, public health authorities say they are testing more potential close contacts at second level than before. So far, however, transmission rates in school are similar to last year.

The definition of close contacts used in Ireland is narrower than in other jurisdictions, where classes are routinely sent home in the event of a single case.

Irish authorities say their approach is justified on the basis of low transmission rates and their risk assessment approach. They say classes are also sent home in Ireland, but it depends on the nature of what emerges in a risk assessment.