‘We’ve turned a corner’: Schools look forward to relaxing Covid-19 restrictions

Principal says reopening of school has gone more smoothly than many predicted

Bryan Collins, principal Scoil Náisiúnta Naomh Feichín, Termonfeckin, Co Louth with pupils. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

Bryan Collins, principal Scoil Náisiúnta Naomh Feichín, Termonfeckin, Co Louth with pupils. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

 

On the first day back to school after Christmas, Bryan Collins feared the worst. “We had 83 pupils absent out of 290,” says Collins, principal of Scoil Naomh Feichín in Termonfeckin, Co Louth. “I’m here 37 years and that is unprecedented. We’ve never had so many pupils absent on a given day.”

A few weeks later and life in school is very different.

Attendances are back close to their pre-pandemic normal of 90 per cent. The number of absences of teachers and SNAs has been lower than he feared. Apart from one outbreak in a junior class where 10 pupils out of 26 tested positive, it has gone smoothly.

Collins says he feels the school has turned a corner. The same is true of other primary schools in the region, he says, based on school principals’ WhatsApp groups and meet-ups over Zoom.

While there is still frustration over substitutes shortages, cold classrooms and weak public health support, much of the talk in schools is now shifting towards the possibility of relaxing Covid-era restrictions.

“We’d love to host our grandparents’ day again. Chess matches, drama, choir - it’s all been off the menu for the past two years. First Communions and Confirmation gatherings in the school. Things like that. We’re hoping it will all be very doable in the coming months.”

‘Reckless and unsafe’

The relatively smooth reopening of schools stands in contrast to warnings issued by some public health commentators and politicians in early January.

At the time People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said the way schools were being reopened was “reckless and unsafe”.

“With case numbers going through the roof, and most schoolchildren unvaccinated and almost all un-boostered, this is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Zero-Covid advocates and public health experts such as Prof Anthony Staines in DCU called for a staggered reopening of schools, while some of his colleagues urged delaying a full resumption until February.

On the other hand, Government Ministers, drawing on the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, argued that risk mitigation measures – such as CO2 monitors, pods and mask wearing – meant schools were lower risk settings for transmission of the virus.

“Public health remains of the view that these mitigation measures are effective and appropriate,” said Minister for Education Norma Foley.

“Furthermore, public health officials advised that there is no public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools later this week.”

Several weeks later, Government sources now say their decision to reopen has been vindicated.

“The advice was that partial reopening or staggered reopening wasn’t going to make any difference given the scale of Omicron in the community,” says one senior source.

“All the evidence was that schools were still lower-risk environments for transmission of the virus and that the vast majority of children experienced a very mild version of the diseases . . . when you weighed up the damage caused by closing schools, it was a straightforward decision.”

Official data – which cover the first two weeks of January – give a partial picture of infection rates among school-aged children since schools reopened.

It shows infection rates for all age groups climbed from 1,365 cases per 100,000 in the last week of December to 1,887 per 100,000 in the second week of January.

At the end of the second week in January, rates were highest among 19- to 24-year-olds followed by 25- to 34-year-olds, and 35- to 44-year-olds.

‘Let rip’

Rates among primary school-age children remained below the national average in the second week of January, while rates among secondary school students were slightly above the national average.

Government officials say this indicates that the virus has not been “let rip” in schools and that risk mitigation measures are still effective.

Prof Anthony Staines, however, defends the more cautious stance of those who were worried about reopening schools.

“Our take was that closing schools was really way down the list of things we should do,” he says.

“We were calling on the Government to make them safe, but we’ve stopped doing PCR tests on children, there is no systemic antigen testing, no mask wearing for younger classes,” he says.

He notes that latest figures in the UK indicate that while Omicron cases are falling there , they are now rising among children. If the same is happening here, he says, Irish authorities aren’t able to track it reliably.

“We should be collecting better information, but we have better information on the health of Irish cows than we do of Irish children. Information is everything. Otherwise, we’re doing this on a wing and a prayer. We might get away with it, but we won’t know if it’s going pear-shaped for weeks.”

As for schools, meanwhile, much focus is shifting towards a resumption of normality.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has announced that its annual congress will take place in-person this Easter for the first since time since 2019, while the Department of Education says rules on face masks in classes will be reviewed shortly.

School principals like Bryan Collins are finally beginning to envisage classrooms returning to some kind of normality.

“Face masks are a challenge. They are are difficult for children and really difficult for teachers. You can’t see facial expressions, it hampers communication. It would be great to be able to put them to one side, when it’s safe to do so,” Collins says.