INTO welcomes additional clarity on HSE school teams and other matters

In a communication to schools this morning, the Department of Education has set out the following information in respect of the new HSE school teams. 

HSE live Covid-19 Principal school line

A dedicated phone number ‘HSE live Covid-19 Principal school line’ is being provided by the HSE for principals to ring in circumstances where they need assistance from Public Health in relation to a confirmed case of Covid-19 within their school community and have not yet heard from Public Health.

The phone number will operate 7 days a week, from 8am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and from 10am to 4.30pm Saturday and Sunday. This number is specifically for school principals for specific Covid-19 related queries pertaining to a positive case in the school community.  Please do not provide this number to other members of the school community.  

Further information is available in the detailed note issued to school principals this morning. 

Dedicated HSE school teams 

The Department of Education has confirmed this morning, in a notice to schools, the resources to be provided to the dedicated HSE school teams. 

These multi-disciplinary teams are being led by public health professionals and will be supplemented by inspectors assigned for this work to the HSE from the Department of Education as well as other staff reassigned from within the health services.  

Inspectors will bring their expertise and knowledge of the working of schools to support these teams to communicate with schools. INTO has been notified that inspectors will not be performing their inspectorate role while carrying out this work and will be operating at all times under the management and direction of the HSE.

Public Health team members will take calls and phone schools following identification of a positive Covid-19 case, and having been trained in Public Health protocols undertake the schools’ component of the initial risk assessment. They may inform schools of any further actions as required under the direction of Public Health. Assigned inspectors and other team members will respond to queries from the HSElive Principals line and take schools’ queries that come directly to the Department of Public Health.

It should be noted that under no circumstances will Department of Education staff be making clinical decisions. All clinical guidance will remain under the governance of Public Health.  However, as part of this work, the school teams will assist with gathering the required information from principals to help the public health teams identify the school based close contacts. Close contacts will then be notified by school management, who will forward a letter or text from Public Health. HSE will then contact close contacts to notify them of their test appointment.  

Dedicated testing of close contacts from a school when there is a positive case 

The Department of Education has confirmed that Covid-19 test appointments are issued as a priority for school based close contacts through a specific schools referral process within the HSE.” 

This morning’s informational note also confirmed that “Public Health will determine when they wish the swabs to be undertaken. This may be ‘as soon as possible’ but it may also be determined for clinical reasons that the swabs should be undertaken in a day or so time.  At the point of testing, swabs for the school group are sent to the laboratory as a ‘red flagged’ batch to be processed as a priority on delivery to the laboratory. The swabs have a specific school reference number to allow batch reporting of results for the particular school setting. This ensures fast turnaround times for testing and enables swift onward further public health actions if required.”

Definition of a close contact in an educational setting 

INTO has sought clarity on the definition of a close and casual contact in a school setting during the mid-term break. 

This morning, the Department of Education has confirmed that they have: 

asked for clarity, and the HPSC, the agency with responsibility for this matter, has published the following definition of a close contact in an educational setting, as set out below. This has been published on their website. The Department of Education does not have a role in this process. 

As per current HPSC close contacts guidelines a clinical Public Health Risk Assessment (PHRA) will be undertaken for all educational settings where a confirmed case has attended whilst infectious. This PHRA will determine the close contacts.

Close contacts definition: 

  • Any person who has had face to face contact within less than 1 metre with a confirmed case of COVID-19 for >15 minutes in a school day.
  • Any person who has been between 1 and 2 metres from a confirmed case of Covid-19 for >15 minutes in a school day with consideration of other mitigation measures e.g. face-coverings, pods, ventilation, IPC measures or uncertain compliance with mitigation measures in place (assessed through clinical PHRA)

Contacts are assessed from contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 during their infectious period – 48 hours before the onset of symptoms if symptomatic, or 24 hours before the test for Covid-19 was taken in those who are asymptomatic.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said: 

While a number of issues still remain to be resolved, the quick establishment of these HSE school teams, staffed by education officials who will better understand the school landscape, alongside a commitment to improve turnaround times is a welcome development. The Department must ensure this new service delivers a significant improvement in support to schools, ensuring no principal is left waiting for days for a risk assessment or public health guidance.  

We called for additional clarity on the definition of a close contact and acknowledge the new one published by the HSPC on Friday evening and noted in correspondence from the department this morning. We hope to tease this out in more detail, alongside a thorough assessment of the latest public health data at our meeting with NPHET officials this week. 

INTO expects that the public health review of the school sector sought by this union and undertaken by Irish Public Health Experts during the mid-term break, will be provided to INTO when complete. We will meet representatives of NPHET weekly and will continue to update our members on progress made.