Reopening schools – public health advice and response plan published

The Department of Education and Skills has written to primary schools this afternoon to confirm that work is underway to reduce the burden on schools by developing centrally delivered guidance and documentation, in close co-operation with the INTO and other stakeholders.

In a meeting with Minister Foley today, INTO shared the frustration of schools across the country that this much needed guidance was not published earlier.

In response, the minister has today published a draft school COVID-19 response plan and the interim recommendations for the reopening of schools and educational facilities from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

The objective of the interim public health recommendations is to provide “clear and actionable guidance” for safely operating schools in the new circumstances.

This guidance will be updated later this month, following detailed analysis of the international experience of schools reopening in June and to reflect the changing situation here.

The draft school response plan includes a required policy statement, sets out the measures to be taken by a school to prevent and control infection, guidance on planning and preparing to reopen schools, induction training and advice on cleaning and hygiene.

Minister Foley has confirmed that extensive stakeholder engagement will continue in the coming weeks with the aim of reducing the burden on schools at a local level by providing central guidance and supports to the greatest extent possible.

The Minister confirmed that the department will continue to engage with INTO on important conditions of employment issues such as substitution for teacher absence.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said:

INTO has consistently stated that public health advice must be paramount in decisions around schools’ reopening. We will examine the published documents in detail and will continue to work towards reopening in a manner, and with resourcing, which minimises risk”.

INTO has provided a summary of the draft guidance on the reopening of schools below.

HPSCInterim Recommendations for the reopening of schools and educational facilities

  • The measures outlined are aimed at risk minimisation of COVID-19, for young people, teachers, other staff, their families and the wider surrounding community, recognising the importance of education for health and wellbeing.
  • No person (child, teacher or parent) should attend an educational setting if unwell or if any members of their household are unwell with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
  • Social (Physical) distancing, hand-hygiene and good respiratory etiquette should be observed by all (children, teachers, parents and visitors).
  • This document does not replace existing health and safety regulations or other legal obligations for education providers. It is intended to supplement existing infection prevention and control guidance by providing information around specific concerns relating to COVID-19.
  • This guidance should be read in conjunction with the Government Roadmap for the reopening of business and society to correspond with national policy.

Underlying principles:

  • Notes the importance of accepting that no interpersonal activity is without risk of transmission of infection at any time.
  • The risk of spread of infection in education (or other) settings is related to the size of the groups of people that interact with each other.
  • It is not possible to guarantee that infection can be prevented in any setting – home or education – where there is interaction with other people.
  • Balance is key – need for a practical and sensible level of caution in conjunction with providing a supportive environment for teaching and learning.
  • An atmosphere of fear and an overwhelming preoccupation with infection and hygiene can be harmful to teachers and pupils and to the quality of the educational experience without materially reducing the risk of infection beyond what can be achieved with a common-sense approach.

Key recommendations:

Minimising risk of introduction of infection

  • Exclusion of pupils, staff members and visitors who are ill.

Managing risk of spread, if introduced, by the following:

  • Regular hand hygiene
  • Maintaining physical distancing
  • Application of respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette
  • Environmental hygiene

Minimising the risk of introduction of Covid-19 into the school community

INTO will be engaging with the Department of Education and Skills on the following issues:

Substitution – in terms of supply and the need to avoid substitute teachers travelling between many schools – for those teachers who are advised not to attend work if they have symptoms or have been identified by HSE as a contact of a person with COVID-19.

A public awareness campaign will be necessary to reinforce the message to parents, pupils and staff:

  • Not to bring their children to school if the child has symptoms of a viral respiratory infection or if there is someone in the household suspected or known to have COVID-19.
  • Not to bring their children to school if they have been identified as a COVID-19 contact.
  • Face-to-face meetings with teachers should be strictly by appointment and only where absolutely necessary.

Managing the risk and spread if the infection is introduced

  • The guidance recommends that supplies of paper towels and soap should be topped up regularly, and ‘cleaning staff should be reminded to check the soap dispensers at frequent intervals.
  • Removal and storage of furniture will be necessary in order to comply with the recommendations that space should be maximised, and class space should be reconfigured to maximise physical distancing.
  • Additional class resources will need to be purchased in order to comply with the recommended minimisation of sharing of tablets / toys / educational materials e.g. play dough should only be for individual use.
  • Face coverings for teachers are not, in general, considered necessary as they conceal facial expression and can make communication difficult. However, it is acknowledged that wearing a visor may be an appropriate alternative in situations where there may be behavioural issues or tending to intimate care needs.

INTO will continue to demand additional funding and resources to ensure our primary schools and special schools can reopen to the maximum level possible, guided at all times by public health advice.