Teachers have called for the resumption of coronavirus contact tracing and testing of asymptomatic primary school pupils, citing a sharp rise in the number of children testing positive.
Pupils who don’t show any symptoms after close contact with someone who has Covid-19 have not been required to restrict their movements since late September, when the Government accepted National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommendations on measures for children aged up to 13 years. That move reflected concern that thousands of tests were being carried out under the tracing procedure, with only a low positivity rate.
Now anxiety about escalating coronavirus infections has prompted renewed demands for a rethink from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the main union for primary-level teachers.
In a statement issued on Thursday in response to press queries, INTO general secretary John Boyle said the union “remains concerned” that the number of primary pupils testing positive had increased by almost 50 per cent since the start of October.
“We believe that the decision to end contact tracing and testing in schools was premature and we reiterate our call that public health should recommence testing, tracing and risk assessments in primary schools,” Mr Boyle said.
But Minister for Education Norma Foley signalled there was no current plans to change the policy because Nphet’s stance remains the same. “We are always guided by public health advice and the advice has not changed,” the Minister’s spokesman said.
“If they change their advice, we will absolutely abide by it but at the moment nothing has changed.”
Asked whether any change was under discussion behind the scenes, he replied: “We have regular engagements with public health officials and, as it stands at the moment, it hasn’t been brought up.”
The spokesman added: “We deal with the stakeholders regularly and will continue to deal with them and listen to their concerns.”
The INTO’s demand to resume contact tracing and testing comes before children return to school next Monday after the mid-term break.
Although rising infection rates generally have stirred concern within the Government, it is understood Ms Foley has no plans to change any of the procedures governing the return of schools next week.
In his statement, Mr Boyle backed demands from deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn for parents to scale back children’s non-school activities.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in relation to Dr Glynn’s remarks that such activities should continue and the Government had “no specific advice” from Nphet on the question.
Still, Mr Boyle said: “We welcome the deputy CMO’s calls to discourage congregation of children [in uncontrolled settings] within the community. We believe that school-support measures need to be augmented and that school-related activities should continue to be restricted between Halloween and Christmas.”
On the shortage of substitute teachers, Mr Boyle said his union had engaged constructively with the Department of Education and expected it to issue a “circular” on the question early next week. “The INTO expects to meet with department officials, public health advisers and fellow stakeholders next week and regularly throughout the school year.”