16th April 2021
Education partners representing primary, post-primary and special schools met with Department of Education officials and public health advisors yesterday (Thursday, 15 April) regarding the current public-health landscape in schools.
A member update on this meeting and relevant developments is detailed below.
The INTO made it clear that our meeting with the Department/public health advisors – while useful – did not adequately address our concerns regarding revisions to the National COVID-19 Vaccination Programme.
During the meeting, the INTO highlighted several anomalies in the rollout of the vaccination programme that have arisen, which have already impacted on education settings.
The public health advisors confirmed that NIAC is continuing to review evidence related to the risk of infection. They committed to investigating anomalies, particularly those that have arisen in special schools.
We will update members on any progress regarding vaccinations as soon as possible next week.
Schools Mass Testing Reports
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has published Weekly COVID -19 Mass Testing Reports for Weeks 13 and 14. These reports for the fortnight from 28 March to 10 April cover the period of school closures over Easter. They indicate that during the school holidays, public health risk assessments (PHRAs) took place for 303 primary schools and 13 special schools.
Following these PHRAs, six staff members and 125 pupils tested positive from an overall cohort of 6,625 who were tested. Public health officials accepted that data from Weeks 13 and 14 would not be representative of the situation when schools were fully open.
Officials confirmed that of the 20,730 persons in schools who were tested since 11 February, having been identified as close contacts, approximately 10% were staff members. The overall infection rate in schools so far this year has been 2%.
We were informed that since the reopening of primary schools, school support teams undertaking PHRAs have found that – due to inclement weather and a number of other issues – the integrity of the pod system was found to be less reliable than previously. In addition to this, a more precautionary approach was being taken to testing and contact tracing. Therefore, more individuals have been classified as close contacts following PHRAs than heretofore.
It was noted that many schools had been very vigilant regarding the number of close contacts within school staff by adhering to strict measures at break times and by holding staff meetings remotely.
Public health will continue to remind members of school communities to follow Level 5 restrictions outside school hours and to adhere to risk mitigation measures during the school day, including at break times.
Weekly reports will issue every Wednesday. Public health advisors will continue to meet education partners after these reports are issued every week.
- Weekly COVID-19 Mass Testing Report for Schools and Childcare Facilities – Week 13: 28 March – 3 April 2021
- Weekly COVID-19 Mass Testing Report for Schools and Childcare Facilities – Week 14: 4 April – 10 April 2021
Pilot-Scheme Antigen Testing
Department of Education officials briefed education partners on the report of the expert review group on antigen testing.
Following representations from the INTO for the use of antigen testing as an additional risk mitigation measure in education settings, the Government has now decided to act on the recommendations made by the group chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson (Science Foundation Ireland).
The Department will engage with education partners in the coming weeks with a view to establishing a pilot scheme on the use of antigen testing in schools.
This voluntary pilot scheme, which is earmarked for a small number of schools, would be run by the HSE for approximately one month prior to the summer holidays. It would be designed to explore the logistical operation of serial testing for school staff.
Any future development of serial testing in our sector would be for the purpose of augmenting the current system of public-health risk assessments followed by PCR testing and contact tracing. We will update members on the pilot scheme in the coming weeks.
Pregnant Staff and Staff in Very High-Risk Category
The Department of Education stated that they hope to give further clarity on arrangements for education staff who are pregnant in the next week. Public-health experts advised that they continue to review this matter on a daily basis. Education staff who are pregnant should continue to work remotely until further notice.
The Department hopes to clarify in the coming weeks any changes to arrangements for teachers in the very high-risk category who have been fully vaccinated.
Student teachers will be in our schools between now and the summer. Spending time in schools on placement is an essential part of initial teacher education and it is important that student teachers are supported on school placements as these placements are an essential part of their professional preparation to be teachers.
The Teaching Council and the Higher Education Institutions providing initial teacher education courses have modified arrangements for school placement this academic year, regarding timing, duration and assessment, in response to the pandemic.
Once student teachers are in schools, they become part of the classroom bubble and should follow all public health guidelines in the school. Student teachers should be seen as a resource to the class teacher in a co-teaching context – for example, where the class teacher may work with a group of pupils while the student teacher teaches the class or vice versa.
Primary Language Curriculum
The Department has issued a communication to schools outlining rescheduled supports as PDST sustained support for schools for the Primary Language Curriculum was interrupted due to the pandemic.
Sustained support for the first cohort of schools (Cohort 1) will recommence in September 2021. It is envisaged that all schools will be able to avail of sustained support over the next two school years.
Applications for Cohort 2 will open this month. Applications for Cohort 3 will open in Spring 2022. Additionally, the PDST will host a webinar each term to support implementation of the Primary Language Curriculum. Schools may take a half day to engage with each webinar.
Invitation To Launch Event
The Department’s communication invites teachers to attend an online information launch event, ‘Guidance on Preparation for Teaching and Learning’, on Tuesday, 27 April (3.30-4.45pm). Registration for the online event will be open on April 16 via the NCCA website.
Following the launch, the guidance document will be sent to all schools. It will be available from 28 April on the NCCA website, along with a video and a recording of the launch event.
The INTO had sought guidance on planning for teachers, particularly in the context of the Learning Outcomes approach in the Primary Language Curriculum. The Guidance has been prepared collaboratively by the Department, NCCA, PDST and NCSE.