The Cabinet has agreed to keep schools closed until January 11th following record numbers of Covid-19 cases in recent days and calls from unions and parents’ groups not to play “Russian roulette” with children’s health.
Schools had been due to reopen on January 6th, but the decision to delay was made at a hastily convened Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. It comes following an increase in the number of cases of Covid-19, the highest number of hospitalisations since May, and a massive rise in referrals of suspected cases in the past week.
The delay had been called for by John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), in a letter to Minister for Education Norma Foley on Tuesday.
The organisation representing primary schools said January 11th should be the earliest date for children to begin the new term. Mr Boyle said this should be considered “on public health grounds in the interest of securing safer schools for pupils, staff and their families”.
In a short statement on Wednesday, following the announcement by Government that schools would remain closed, Mr Boyle welcomed the move.
“We welcome the swift movement by Government to delay the reopening of our primary and special schools,” he said.
“As we set out yesterday, the alarming public health data and concerns expressed in respect of the new Covid-19 variation warrant this approach.
“We will seek to work constructively with the Department of Education and Nphet to ensure our schools reopen next month and have the necessary supports and protection to stay open safely.”
Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) general secretary Kieran Christie said the decision by the Government to delay re-opening schools was the correct one.
Mr Christie maintained the new variant of the virus, which is much more infectious than previous variations, meant that the situation had changed.
“Today’s announcement that schools will re-open on January 11th presents a new window of opportunity for a comprehensive review of the existing school safety arrangements and mitigations that are in place,” he said.
“Serious consideration must be given to whether these are now sufficient given the emergence of the new strain of coronavirus.”
Mr Christie said they wanted the relative level of safety in schools that existed between September and Christmas to be restored and that the extended holidays should be used to put measures in place to ensure such a safe reopening.
Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie said that the delay in re-opening must be used to ensure that schools are as safe as possible for students and staff.
He said the spike in cases is causing “grave concern and anxiety”.
He echoed the calls of the ASTI that the additional time be used to investigate what additional safety measures and enhancements may be required in schools.
“We have said at all times that we will be guided by the advice of the public health authorities and we trust that there will be full consultation and engagement with the Department of Education and Nphet in relation to issues of concern in the coming days,” he said.
The latest report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, published on Wednesday, shows there were 21 clusters of Covid-19 detected among school children or staff during the week ending December 31st. That figure represented a reduction of four on the week before.
Schools closed for Christmas holidays on December 22nd, and the report pointed out that transmission of Covid-19 within the school setting had not necessarily been established in these outbreaks.
Before the announcement to delay re-opening was made, the National Parents Association, which represents more than 40 per cent of students and families in secondary schools, said it would be "reckless to say the least, if not unconscionable" to reopen schools.
“Parents have been asked several times this year to play Russian roulette with their children’s health and the guilt and anguish felt by parents whose children have caught this virus in school is something no other parent should have to endure,” it said.
“As the light begins to appear at the end of the tunnel let us not put at risk another boy or girl’s life. While we appreciate the priority to keep schools open this lockdown if handled properly will be our last one.”
A spokesman for the Federation of Early Childhood Providers has said it is seeking clarity from the Government about whether or not its facilities will be closed for the next month.