Schools should not reopen after midterm unless safety improves, say unions

Minister promises new teams to assist schools when Covid-19 cases are identified

 

Schools should not reopen after next week’s midterm break until health and safety measures improve, unions representing school staff have warned.

Unions raised concerns over the safety of staff and pupils as well as frustration over testing and tracing delays with Department of Education and National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) representatives on Tuesday.

Speaking after the meeting, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary John Boyle said: “The successful reopening of schools on November 2nd will depend on the preventative and protective measures that are put in place by the Government in the interim.”

The union’s demands include details of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in schools, a clear explanation of the difference between a close and casual contact in school settings and an “urgent review” of the policy of wearing face coverings by pupils and school staff at primary level.

Fórsa, which represents more than 15,000 special needs assistants and non-teaching staff, said major improvements in health and safety needed to take place before schools could safely reopen.

Andy Pike, the union’s head of education, said the Government’s approach was to “do the bare minimum and downplay the extent of the risks to staff and students”.

Mr Pike said current arrangements had not been sufficient to keep pace with the rise in cases and some schools had been left to fend for themselves without HSE intervention, resulting in decisions to send home year groups or close schools completely.

Minister for Education Norma Foley, however, said school communities “can be absolutely assured” that any necessary resources would be put in place to ensure a safe return to school after midterm.

She said public health resources for testing and tracing in schools would be “broadened and strengthened” with dedicated school teams put in place in each HSE area to assist schools where a positive Covid-19 case is identified.

These teams are being led by public health professionals and will be supported by the Department of Education.

Ms Foley said a significant factor in the decision to move to Level 5 of the Government’s Living with Covid-19 framework this week was that by doing so the Government can support our schools to continue to operate safely.

She said Nphet had reviewed the national experience of school reopening to date, including the epidemiological data and information gathered through case and outbreak management.

Having considered this evidence, she said Nphet had recommended that schools remain open during Level 5 restrictions, even in the current trajectory of the disease.

Latest public health data as of October 19th shows that a total of 10,513 students and teachers have been involved in mass testing. This has resulted in the detection of 246 additional cases.

This equates to a positive detection rate of 2 per cent of additional detected cases, compared with over 7 per cent in the community.

“In other words, where mass testing has been carried out of close contacts in the school setting of confirmed cases, this has only resulted in a small number of additional confirmed cases, not all of which are transmitted within the school setting,” Ms Foley said.

In a statement, the HSE said a rise in cases overall in the community and in the positivity rate has challenged public health teams considerably over the last weeks, and this has had an impact on response times in schools.

The HSE said it acknowledged at meeting with education partners that it needed to have a swifter reaction and was aiming to have processes strengthened by the time schools return after the midterm break.

“Teams of support people are being put in place across the departments of public health, which will be a direct point of contact for schools and public health in the future,” it said, in a statement.