INTO seeks immediate assurances on the safety of our schools

INTO has set out five clear requirements for schools to operate safely as community infection rates rise and the number of positive tests in schools increase.

Over the last number of weeks, as significant changes to the public health landscape have taken place, INTO is growing increasingly concerned that public health precautions for teachers are inadequate. We are alarmed at comments made by Dr Henry of NPHET, who said it appears widespread community transmission is a threat to schools.

Many primary teachers have underlying health conditions or have family members whose health is at risk from Covid-19. The threat associated with rising levels of infection in communities is leading to apprehension and anxiety among school staff nationwide, especially in counties where level 4 restrictions already apply.

It remains imperative that a public health review takes place and that all education stakeholders are immediately convened to explore what this means for our schools. INTO insists that it be represented on any government steering group involved in pandemic planning in primary and special schools.

The desire of teachers to keep schools open must be met with a firm commitment to keep schools safe.

Considering the deteriorating landscape, INTO demands that the following measures be put in place with immediate effect:

  1. The publication of the exact number of school staff who have tested positive since September categorised by school type – primary/special school and by staff roles – mainstream class teacher, special education teacher, other non-class teachers, SNA, school secretary, caretaker etc. and publication of the medical evidence supporting the continuation of attendance in schools of staff who are pregnant or are in the high-risk category of health.
  2. A clear explanation of the difference between a close contact and casual contact in a school setting must be set out. When HSE risk assessments are conducted following confirmation of a positive case in a school, there must be direct consultation with all staff associated with the class in which the confirmed case is based. It is essential that the class and staff in question are tested within 24 hours and that they restrict movement until the testing and tracing process is complete.
  3. An urgent review of the policy on the wearing of face coverings by pupils and school staff is now essential to provide up to date public health guidance on the use of this equipment in primary and special school settings.
  4. An additional suite of protective measures for primary and special schools in areas where level 4 of the government’s framework applies including the immediate banning of extra-curricular activities, the restriction of parents/guardians congregating at school grounds to a maximum of 15 mask-wearing adults at any given time, a strict no visitors policy for all schools and the provision of funding to ensure that teachers and pupils can engage with remote learning.
  5. An evidenced-based public health decision on the status of primary and special schools, where their communities are at level 5 be communicated to education stakeholders including INTO after consultation and engagement, by the end of October. School staff and students, who have done their utmost to adjust to the new realities of school life since the Summer, deserve as much protection as everyone else in society.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle stated:

The government’s plan for living with Covid-19 mentions that recommendations regarding the status of schools at level 5 will be based ‘on the situation and evidence at the time.’  INTO has engaged constructively with government on the development of the roadmap for the safe reopening of schools, which was underpinned by expert Irish public health advice three months ago. The level of infection in Ireland at that time was significantly lower than at present. As has been our default position, all decisions related to schools must be led by public health advice.

Despite our best efforts, government has failed to deliver a fit for purpose, fast-tracked, sector-specific testing and tracing system in the seven weeks since schools reopened. This has resulted in principal teachers regularly having to initiate out of hours contact with families and staff members when they have been notified of positive tests. This situation is simply untenable. If our primary and special schools are to fully reopen after mid-term break and operate safely next month, government must ensure that the necessary protective measures and protocols are put in place within the next fortnight.