The Irish Times view on Covid-19 in schools: the case for intervention

As cases rise further, it is clear that some measures will be needed to ease the stress and disruption that schools are now facing

Schools will reopen after the mid-term break next week amid rising tensions over the State’s approach to Covid in the classroom. In choosing last month to end the requirement for children who are close contacts of confirmed cases to isolate, the Government calculated that it could reduce disruption to children’s education. That was an important objective – theinterruptions of the past year-and-a-half have been a real, and in some cases devastating, setback to children – and it was supported by evidence that children are much less likely to fall ill with the virus, or even to pass it on.

But with the number of Covid cases rising sharply among children in recent weeks – cases within the 5-12 age group have risen 64 per cent in the past fortnight – it has become clear that some form of intervention will be needed to ease the stress and disruption that schools are now facing. A small number of schools have closed their doors temporarily due to high case counts. Many others say they have felt abandoned. It seems counter-intuitive to warn against too much outdoor mixing among children at Halloween, as one of the Government’s scientific advisers did this week, while there remains such little focus on ventilation and testing in crowded classrooms.

Two measures could alleviate the pressure on schools. The first is to restore contact tracing. Many schools report that they are engaged in improvised contact tracing of their own anyway. That work should be done by public health officials; reintroducing it until the current wave has passed would reassure teachers and parents. The second measure is a nationwide antigen testing programme for schools. The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) remains cool on antigen testing, but other countries are convinced of their utility and they are self-evidently of more value than having no test at all. When it comes to emergency management, says Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, "perfection is the enemy of the good." Antigen tests may not be perfect, but their systematic use could make schools safer this winter.