School principals want to see a dedicated HSE phone helpline for reporting Covid-19 cases in classes better resourced as they are struggling to manage increased cases and close contacts.
There is growing concern among principals about delays in public health teams and contact tracers responding to calls about infected schoolchildren to an existing special helpline.
The HSE has said that up to 12,000 children are staying home from school and restricting their movements after being identified as close contacts just days into the new academic year.
John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, said the HSE may need to apply more resources to the principals' helpline to manage the surge in exposures.
“It was heavily resourced last year but we never had that level of cases in the community with schools open so there is a possibility that the resource is not sufficient,” said Mr Boyle.
The teachers’ union wants helpline staff to be redeployed to support schools in areas of the country dealing with higher levels of Covid-19 infection and for public health risk assessment and contact tracing teams to be strengthened to speed up response times in dealing with cases.
“If there is a time lag and there are people infectious in schools because advice has not been given to school principals or management as to what to do, that is going to create havoc,” he said.
Faster responses by public health teams could result in lower numbers of schoolchildren becoming close contacts of infected cases and having to stay home, he said.
Mr Boyle said the number of Covid-19 close contacts reported in schools was “startling and concerning” and that the responsibility left on principals to deal with cases was “quite onerous.”
He noted that the number of schools with one confirmed case already this year was half the number that had a confirmed case over the course of the full school year last year.
“For the 1,650 to 1,700 teaching principals in primary schools, if they have long time lags waiting for help, while having to teach their classes and run their schools, that is a pretty difficult juggling act - impossible I would say,” he said.
School principals have taken to social media to raise concerns about the pressure on them to carry out contact tracing and communicate with families of students exposed to positive cases.
Simon Lewis, principal of the Educate Together primary school in Carlow Town, said that the helpline needs to be staffed 24 hours a day to help principals respond quickly to cases.
“We have had one case and the frustrating thing is that I was told about it late last night but it wasn’t until 9am this morning that I could contact public health. I was left in this limbo,” he said.
Principals are told to do nothing until they receive public health advice, yet they are in a race to tell affected families quickly, before the information is shared in WhatsApp parent groups, he said.
“You are trying to keep the trust of your families and it is a race that you don’t want to be in,” he said.
“They need a 24-hour helpline for schools because ultimately that is where all the unvaccinated people are: in schools.”
Principals were losing evenings and full days to managing Covid-19 cases and contact tracing, and the pressure has taken a toll with Mr Lewis knowing a large number who have decided “to jack it in” over the last 18 months.
“Everyone is feeling the pressure,” he said.