Teachers have clashed with school principals over staging “risky” assemblies of pupils and staff ahead of the reopening of schools for up to a million children.
The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) has directed thousands of its members not to participate in large group assemblies which, it says, pose a public health risk.
St Leo’s College in Carlow – one of the first secondary schools to reopen – was at the centre of controversy on Tuesday after it emerged that about 150 first-year students gathered in the school hall for a prayer service, sitting on chairs separated by one metre.
While the school principal said the school did not breach Government guidelines, the ASTI criticised the move and said it would not tolerate this happening in other schools.
"They are extremely ill-advised and shouldn't be happening," said ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland also warned against unnecessary physical meetings taking place in schools, especially among staff members.
"Our main aim is to get students back to school. We managed since March with meetings online, so why risk it?" said TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said limits have been placed on gatherings in other settings in order to support the reopening of schools which involve significant numbers of staff and students in school buildings.
He said public-health guidance in relation to staff meetings in schools is to ensure a two-metre physical distance. They should take place remotely where possible.
Meanwhile, further school closures will place children at risk of "long-lasting harm" , according to a Health Service Executive clinical review to be published shortly.
Experts warn that primary schoolchildren are most at risk, especially those with additional learning needs and special needs.
The report is expected to acknowledge that the opening of schools increases the risk of infection. However, it will say that this risk is “unavoidable”.
“The current restrictive strategy can’t continue much longer. It has the potential cause long-lasting harm,” states a draft circulated among senior officials and clinicians.
“The critical period for attainment of literacy skills and specifically reading is up to eight years . . . Delays in this development will have knock-on effects.”
Separately, the Irish National Teachers Organisation has called for an urgent review of rules which exempt primary schoolchildren from wearing face masks.
It follows updated advice from the World Health Organisation which says children aged between six and 11 should wear face masks on a "risk-based approach".
The INTO said it had written to Taoiseach Micheál Martin seeking clarity on the public-health guidance relating to primary and special schools. It has called on the Government to “urgently review” guidelines in relation to children wearing face coverings.
Updated public-health guidance being issued to GPs and parents, meanwhile, states that children should still go to school if their only symptoms are a runny nose or sneezing.
Many parents have complained of a lack of clarity in recent times over whether they should keep their children at home if they develop a cold.
The updated guidance states it is “usually okay to send your child to school” if they only have nasal symptoms such as a runny nose or sneeze.
However, any child who has a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or more, a new cough, loss or changed sense of taste or smell, or shortness of breath should stay at home.
Schools expect that the number of absences due to illness or potential symptoms of Covid-19 is set to soar over the coming weeks and months.
Under existing school-attendance rules, social services are automatically alerted if any child misses 20 or more days of school. Parents may also be prosecuted in extreme circumstances.
However, a Department of Education spokesman said Tusla would take these new public-health guidelines into account when supporting children and their parents.