Schools are finally set to reopen on a phased basis to more than a million pupils and teachers.
But how safe will school settings be? Will reopening schools lead to the R rate increasing? Does the UK variant carry a greater threat to children? And how soon could we be talking about closing schools again?
Will it be safe to reopen schools given the level of virus in the community?
"Yes, definitively," says Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group and member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). "There are fewer cases now than there were at the peak in October, a period when – thanks to efforts of school principals, teachers, pupils and public health doctors – schools stayed open with very low numbers relative to the general population."
While the virus is more transmissible, he says we need to remain vigilant and adhere to all infection-control guidelines.
Prof Anthony Staines, a professor in health systems at Dublin City University who advocates a zero-Covid approach, says there are risks to reopening schools, but a phased approach is more sensible than a "big bang".
“The fewer the cases in the community the better; schools really do reflect the community around them,” he says.
Will virus transmission rates increase when schools reopen?
"Probably, yes," says Prof Staines. "At the moment it is very close to one – just under it – so we don't have much headroom. Once it rises above that, it tends to feed on itself and can go from a modest to a rapid increase very quickly. That's not off that cards, but hopefully it won't happen."
But Prof Nolan says it is too early to say for sure. “We saw very low levels of transmission in schools from September to December, and we’ll need to wait and see because we’re dealing with a different variant.”
He says he is much more concerned about parents congregating or deciding to go to work because they have more free time. The risk, he says, is that adults relax because the reopening of school suggests the danger has passed.
What kind of case numbers could cause schools to close once again?
"We need to be driven by data," says Prof Staines. "I think we should be looking at schools regionally, as there are some areas where transmission is much lower than others."
It is vital, he says, that we do more to manage the Border and have stronger hotel quarantines for inward travel to reduce risks.
Prof Nolan says the focus should be on driving numbers. “We should think about making a success of this and making it our priority to drive cases down further,” he says. “So, we’re not countenancing it going up. Let’s keep up the level of caution we need to keep it going down and then get to the summer, when we hope things will start to look much more different.”
Are children at greater risk with the new UK variant?
Prof Staines says latest evidence is that the UK variant is more transmissible across all age groups, but it does not appear to place children at any greater risk.
Among adults, there is some evidence to show that it makes people sicker – “not enormously” – while research is continuing on other aspects of the variant.