Government announce the further reopening of primary schools

The Department of Education has today confirmed the further reopening of primary schools from Monday, 15 March 2021. This follows the reopening of special schools, special classes and junior classes in primary schools. The final cohort of classes, namely 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th classes, will return to school from Monday next week.  

Union engagement

In a meeting with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) last week, the Department of Education outlined a 65% fall in the 14-day incidence rates of COVID-19 over the last five-week period. They clarified that NPHET projects further decreases in the coming week. The INTO has insisted that decisions on the wider reopening of our primary schools must be led by up to date public health advice. In response, the department confirmed that public health officials have closely scrutinised official data from mass testing in special schools and primary schools since the phased reopening began on 11 February and that the data has shown that positivity levels of the virus remain low in these settings. 

It was agreed with the INTO that the HPSC will publish weekly reports, every Wednesday, and public health experts will provide clarifications to the INTO as necessary. The government and NPHET have emphasised that all phases of the return to schools will be monitored on an ongoing basis.

Pregnant teachers

Over the last number of weeks, the INTO has consistently raised concerns in respect of pregnant teachers and insisted on an urgent review of recently published HSE guidance on pregnant employees in the education sector. In light of recent developments, including an announcement by the Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn last week on Covid Placentitis, we insisted the review must take these worrying preliminary reports into account. 

On foot of our representations, the department sought further clarification on pregnant teachers and has today issued Information note 0010/2021 to schools, which confirms that pregnant primary teachers should continue to work remotely pending clarification.

A review of this matter is ongoing and the INTO will provide an update to members as soon as it has concluded. 

We encourage pregnant members who wish to work remotely to advise their school principals of their intention as soon as possible to aid planning for the next phase of reopening. 

We further reiterate our advice that pregnant members should contact their doctors or obstetricians if they have any medical concerns. 

Teachers with underlying health conditions

The INTO has regularly requested that government review its risk categorisation criteria in line with emerging medical evidence in respect of teachers with underlying health conditions. 

As members will recall, some teachers were re-categorised from high risk to very high risk in late October.

Following a recent review, a number of our members who had previously been categorised as high risk (for example those with uncontrolled diabetes and persons with a body mass index greater than 40) will be notified of their re-categorisation as very high risk and consequently will continue to work from home with substitution cover until further notice. The revised risk categorisation list is available here.

Any member whose medical advisor confirms that they have uncontrolled diabetes or a body mass index greater than 40, and who has not sought a Medmark referral heretofore, is reminded that they may now seek such a referral. Members awaiting appointments with Medmark or awaiting the outcome of a referral are not expected to return to school buildings until their boards of management receive notification of the outcome from Medmark. 

Face masks

While we note the recent deliberations of the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) who have reiterated their advice that a compulsory face mask policy is not recommended in primary schools, it remains our view that such a policy for pupils in senior classes would help to reduce the risk of infection and provide an extra layer of defence against COVID-19. We will continue to insist that this matter be kept under review. 

Cessation of other flexible arrangements

The INTO sought the continuity of flexible arrangements available during the earlier phases of reopening of special schools, special classes and junior classes in respect of the right for teachers aged over 60 and teachers in the high-risk category to continue working from home. However, with effect from Monday, 15 March, these derogations will cease to apply. 

As a result of the wider reopening of primary schools and childcare facilities available to the children of essential workers, the temporary flexibilities related to the parental leave scheme will no longer apply. The Department of Children has provided FAQs and information on subsidies that may be available for education sector staff. Further information is available here. 

Expert group reviews

The union will continue to pursue early publication from a series of expert review groups formed to explore the merits of antigen testing and air ventilation monitors for educational settings. The INTO has also highlighted reports of anomalies in the vaccination programme and we continue to demand clarity on the timeframe for rollout to education staff.  

Risk assessments  

The INTO reiterates our previous advice to school principals who may be asked to assist with conducting public health risk assessments. 

Following confirmation of a positive test for a pupil in a school, public health authorities will make contact with the principal to carry out a risk assessment. In liaising with the school principal, public health staff will seek insight into the movement and interactions of a pupil who has tested positive, to identify close contacts. It may be appropriate for the principal to liaise with teachers/SNAs to form a more comprehensive view of the movement and interactions of the class or group, to inform the public health assessment. This should be done without naming the pupil. 

It is always open to a school principal to contact the HSE school support team to provide additional information related to any incidence of infectious cases that have arisen in the school. Principals who have concerns relating to testing, tracing or public health risk assessments are welcome to contact the INTO.  

Parental congregation

We acknowledge the tireless efforts of school principals to adopt strict policies on the congregation of parents outside school buildings. As we move forward, it will remain critical that parents fulfil their responsibilities in this respect and adhere to all restrictions put in place for the safety of their pupils and the school community.  

Information for parents

Short videos for parents from public health doctors have been circulated to reaffirm the importance of keeping COVID-19 out of education facilities by keeping symptomatic children at home. Schools should continue to remind parents to err on the side of caution in this respect and to follow the school’s sickness policy.

Parent communications from the school should emphasise that there should be no congregation outside schools at any stage, and that engagement with staff should be requested through the school and will be provided by telephone or online.