INTO member summary of mid-term progress on key issues

In advance of the mid-term break, the INTO set out five clear requirements for schools to operate safely, as community infection rates were rising and the number of positive tests in schools increasing.

Below is a summary of progress made over the past week, during the mid-term closure, as we have continued to press Department of Education & health authorities to provide additional supports.

1 – Covid-19 test data 

Following a meeting with the Department of Education and NPHET on Wednesday, it was agreed that engagement with unions, management and officials from the Department and NPHET will be considerably scaled up. Weekly meetings will be held, with the latest school-based data provided to the group.

INTO expects that the data we have called for will be available for in-depth analysis at an early date. We have asked the Department to review transmission rates related to before/after-school activities – for example: breakfast clubs, extra-curricular activities, congregation outside school buildings.

2 – Contacts & tracing

Following pressure from the INTO, the Government has confirmed that the Department will roll out a national network of dedicated public health teams for schools from next week. The teams will be staffed by both public health and education department officials and will provide a dedicated helpline for schools dealing with a positive case.

Additional contacts & tracing updates:

  • In order to ensure a thorough public health risk assessment is undertaken where required in schools, INTO has insisted that all staff members associated with the person testing positive, and the Lead Worker Representative, be consulted to inform the process. INTO is now advising school leaders to request that impacted staff members be included by public health staff in the risk assessment in the event of a confirmed case.
  • It has been widely reported that the teams in HSE areas will also help schools to access substitute teachers. INTO is seeking further clarity on what this will involve and has asked the department to consider expanding the supply panel network to ensure nationwide coverage.
  • We have asked the Department to confirm that the helpline provided to school principals will continue to operate throughout the pandemic.
  • Earlier today, the Department of Education confirmed that in the event of a positive case, the following applies to the people they live with:
    • People they live with need to stay at home (restricted movements) – This includes the children in the household not going to school.
    • People in the household (including children) need to restrict their movements. This is because they may have COVID-19 too.
    • They need to avoid contact with other people and social situations as much as possible. This includes not going to school. They will also need to get a COVID-19 test. Contact tracers will arrange testing with for these  close contacts.

3 – Face coverings

INTO welcomes confirmation received this morning that HPSC guidance on the wearing of face masks in primary schools will be reviewed.  A full Covid-related review of the education sector in September and October is in the process of being finalised. A detailed assessment of the use of face-coverings in primary and special schools is being undertaken.

4 – Additional protective measures for schools

On foot of INTO representations the following actions are now being undertaken:

  • All pregnant teachers, teachers aged over 65, those with serious underlying health conditions and teachers who are carers or who live with someone who is at risk of flu because of a long-term health condition will receive the free flu vaccine. We will continue to demand that all teachers, who are front line workers receive priority access to a free flu vaccine;
  • The Department has agreed to revise the current circular dealing with Covid-related absence and a revised draft will issue to INTO and school management for consultation shortly;
  • We note from the answers provided last week that the factors considered during a risk assessment include ventilation of classrooms and classroom structure. In that regard, we are concerned that detailed guidance on the balancing between the heating and ventilation of schools has yet to be issued. The Department have committed to publishing further guidance on ventilation to support schools.

5 – Evidenced-based public health decisions

INTO continues to push for reliable and transparent public health advice and data, which must be at the heart of decision making. As stated by General Secretary John Boyle: “We need to recognise the challenges and strain on our schools and especially on our school leaders at this time. We are committed to engaging with both the Department of Education and members of NPHET every single week to highlight the concerns of the thousands of teachers and principals in our primary schools, without whom our schools simply would never have opened in the first place.”

Further developments:

PPE recall notice

INTO is extremely concerned that many of the products on the approved list of resources have now been deemed inappropriate. That this information has come to light during a much-needed mid-term break is unsatisfactory. INTO is pressing the Department of Education for further information on this matter. Looking forward, where schools run out of funding for sanitisers and PPE before Christmas, we have asked the department to confirm that they will be reimbursed.

Public Awareness Campaign

This week, the department committed to rolling out a national campaign to raise public awareness on the best approaches to keeping Covid-19 out of schools. INTO is deeply concerned about incidences of mass congregation of parents close to school buildings at reception and dismissal times. It has been reported to us that many adults have been refusing to wear face coverings at school facilities. We have also been informed that many families have sent pupils to school with symptoms of Covid-19. Many pupils have also reported to their teachers that their families have not been adhering to Government restrictions, with large gatherings of pupils from different families happening outside school hours. We believe that there is a necessity for a renewed public awareness campaign by Government to drive home the message that if the people of Ireland wish that schools will remain open safely, they will have to cooperate with school management to that end.

Further updates will follow after next week’s meeting between the INTO and officials from the Department of Education and NPHET.