Unions say it is ‘far too early’ to relax Covid close contact rules in schools

Staff representatives respond to plans to let unvaccinated close contacts stay in school

School staff unions have said it is “far too early” to relax Covid test and tracing protocols in schools.

They were reacting to plans discussed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to allow unvaccinated children who are close contacts of a confirmed Covid-19 case to remain in school and not isolate at home from the end of September, as long as they are not showing symptoms.

The increased number of cases among primary school students since schools reopened is currently resulting in about 1,200 children being forced to restrict their movements every day.

Well-placed sources say the requirement for children to stay out of school after being identified as close contacts is likely to be eased from the week beginning September 27th, but this is predicated on data on transmission in schools not showing a sudden or unexpected surge.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said any proposed changes should be reviewed closer to the mid-term break in October and introduced thereafter.

"Nphet have regularly stated that a change in approach to contact tracing is not without risks, including potentially missing a resurgence until people become wholly symptomatic," said INTO general secretary John Boyle.

“Prof [Philip] Nolan [of Nphet] has also stated that owing to the increased transmissibility of the Delta [Covid-19] variant, there is a concern that in-school transmission could rise above the R number 1, making it potentially more challenging to manage outbreaks.”

Fórsa, which represents about 14,000 school staff including special needs assistants (SNAs), school secretaries and caretakers, said it was far too early to relax test and tracing protocols in schools.

The union said new advice should not be implemented until there is a consistent pattern of reduced infections in schools and the wider community.

Fórsa's head of education Andy Pike said: "Covid positivity rates immediately prior to the 2021 school reopening were alarmingly high. Data from the first two weeks of the new term appear to show a reduction to a level of 4 per cent, which is comparable to figures for the last school year. But the data is incomplete, and we need to exercise caution prior to and during any relaxation of the existing safety measures."

Additional challenges

Mr Pike said school staff also believed the Delta variant could pose additional challenges for schools because it was far more transmissible than the variant at large before the summer break.

“It is too early to draw any conclusions on relaxing protections. We will need to be certain that the measures in place will effectively prevent wide-scale transmission before deciding that they are no longer needed,” he said.

Fórsa acknowledged that Nphet recognises the need for caution, and that it is likely to support the maintenance of existing restrictions in movements for asymptomatic students in special education or with underlying medical conditions.

However, Mr Pike said approximately two-thirds of students with additional care needs are studying in a mainstream class where restrictions would be removed if the proposed new guidance was adopted.

“We could not support such a policy until there is clear evidence that this approach of relaxation would not increase transmission,” said Mr Pike.

“We acknowledge that working parents and employers are experiencing difficulties because of the large number of students currently required to restrict their movements. But policy must be based on clinical evidence rather than business interests.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent