Member update: Public health support getting back on track

At the end of another busy week for the INTO, we would like to provide the following member update.

The following topics are covered in this update:

  • COVID-19 supports on foot of cyber-attack
  • Advice on store bought antigen tests
  • School-based public health landscape
  • Double down on risk mitigation measures in schools
  • Weekly mass testing report
  • Vaccination programme
  • Final school cleaning and sanitising equipment grant payments
  • Revised guidance on air ventilation in schools
  • Sixth class graduations/class celebrations
  • School tours

COVID-19 supports on foot of cyber-attack

Arising from the cyber-attack on our nation’s health departments, delays in the processing of essential COVID-19 related services were identified. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) raised the matter with the Department of Education and key public health experts. We have been advised that the delays experienced last weekend are unlikely to reoccur in the coming weeks.

School leaders are advised to contact the dedicated HSE Principals Line (number provided directly to schools) if you are made aware of a case of COVID-19 within your school. In the short term, while efforts are ongoing to restore critical IT systems, this dedicated support line will coordinate contacts with local public health authorities. The current level of support dedicated to primary and special schools since Easter will continue until the end of the school year. Schools are reminded to ensure that they have all the relevant information to hand when engaging with public health services.

The department is currently advising education staff and students with symptoms of COVID-19 and those who are close contacts of confirmed cases to temporarily attend walk-in testing centres rather than waiting for a formal appointment. We will update members should this advice change.

Furthermore, the INTO has been informed that anyone who is awaiting a result of the Day 10 test, should continue to restrict their movements until they receive this result, or restrict their movements for 14 days, whichever is the soonest.

The normal arrangements as they relate to symptomatic pupils or staff should continue to be followed. No one with COVID-19 symptoms should attend the school building.

The Department of Education is advising schools to consult the detailed FAQ’s on the departmental website which contain updated information on queries related to instances of COVID-19 in schools. Should school leaders have queries not covered by the FAQ site, they are encouraged to email the department directly at Members are advised that this email address should not be used for any other purpose.

Advice on store bought antigen tests

Public health advisors have clarified that members of school communities cannot rely on the results of antigen tests purchased in retail outlets as proof that those with symptoms or those who are close contacts are COVID-19 free.

The INTO will remain in close contact with the Department of Education and inform members as the situation develops.

School based public health landscape

A new epidemiological report on COVID-19 cases in those aged 0-18 was published last week.

In the fourteen months between 1 March 2020 and 8 May 2021, a total of 38,948 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the 0–18-year-old population were notified on the Computerised Infectious Disease Reporting (CIDR) system:

  • 8,242 of these cases were pre-school aged children (aged 0-4 years)
  • 14,327 were primary school aged children (aged 5-12 years)
  • 6,379 were secondary school aged children (aged 13-18 years)

This represents 3.1% of the 0-18 population in Ireland and 15.4% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ireland reported between week 10 (2020) and week 18 (2021). There has been a significant reduction in infection rates among those who have already been vaccinated including public health staff, those with underlying conditions, persons in residential care settings and the elderly. As a consequence, the incidence rate among 0–18-year-olds now constitutes a greater percentage of positive cases than prior to the roll out of the vaccination programme

Weekly incidence rates of COVID-19 in children aged 0-18 years in 2021:

  • While there is week to week variation in the weekly incidence rate of COVID-19 by age-group, small initial increases in the weekly incidence rate of COVID-19 were noted during weeks 11-12 in children aged 0-4 years and 5-12, coinciding with the full reopening of childcare facilities and primary schools.
  • During weeks 15-17, small increases in the weekly incidence rate were seen among children aged 13-18 years, coinciding with the full reopening of secondary schools.
  • In week 18, the weekly incidence rate in each of these age groups is stable or decreased compared to week 17 and similar to that seen in the general population.
  • Among children aged 13-18 years, the weekly incidence rate since the phased reopening of schools has not exceeded the highest weekly incidence rate seen during the September to December (2020) school term.

To read the latest report, click here.

Double down on risk mitigation measures in schools

Public health evidence underscores the impact of strict compliance with the public health risk mitigation measures to be followed in schools. Compliance reduces the onward spread of COVID-19 infection and has been shown to lower the positivity rate amongst the school population following discovery of a confirmed case within the school.

The INTO continues to advise school leaders to ensure that all members of the school community, including parents, continue to adhere to these requirements in the coming months. The CMO has again reminded parents that they should not send symptomatic children to school.

Weekly mass testing report

The HPSC has published weekly reports of mass testing in schools and childcare settings throughout this term. However, on foot of the cyberattack on HSE data systems, a report is not available for the last week.

In the four weeks covered in this term since 11 April, 283 primary schools and 11 Special Schools had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and following public health risk assessments, 288 persons including 19 staff members tested positive.

Earlier this week, public health confirmed to the INTO that the average national positivity rate has remained steady in primary and special schools since Easter.

View recent weekly testing reports here.

Vaccination Programme

On foot of concerns raised by the INTO, in respect of a move away from prioritisation for vaccine of front line workers, including teachers, following high risk rollout, the union has received a response from Minister Donnelly.

In the correspondence, Minister Donnelly states:

The NIAC has now been able to more comprehensively identify medical conditions and to distinguish between those which place a person at very high or high risk of severe disease if they contract the virus. Medical conditions and the magnitude of the risk they pose will continue to be monitored and periodically reviewed.

Based on clinical, scientific and ethical frameworks produced by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee and the Department of Health, following the vaccination of those most at risk, future groups will be vaccinated by age,  (i.e., 64-55; 54-50, 49-45 etc.)

The move to an age-based model better supports the programme objectives by:

  • protecting those at highest risk of severe disease first, which benefits everyone most;
  • facilitating planning and execution of the programme across the entire country;
  • improving transparency and fairness.

It is important to note that the NIAC has advised that there is no evidence to show a significantly increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease, independent of age and other co-morbidities, in any occupational group other than frontline healthcare workers to prioritise them for vaccination above their age-cohort.”

Between 7 April, when INTO Congress adopted a resolution on the vaccination programme and the end of this week our members who are pregnant and between 14 and 36 week’s gestation, members in high risk categories of health and those aged 45 plus are expected to have been offered vaccines. Public health advisors confirmed to the INTO this week that they expect that all of our members will be offered vaccines by the end of the school year and that those who have to receive a second dose will be offered one by mid-August.

The INTO continues to seek a meeting with An Taoiseach to discuss the current rollout plans for the vaccine for our members.

Final school cleaning and sanitising equipment grant payments

The INTO raised the issue of the Term 3  grants for sanitising equipment and school cleaning in our weekly meeting with the department, who confirmed that these grants will be paid to schools in the coming week.

Revised guidance on air ventilation in schools

The Department of Education has also confirmed that they intend to issue revised guidance on ventilation in schools in the coming week. The Department has previously stated that they will act on the recommendations of the Expert Review Group on the Role of Ventilation in Reducing Transmission of COVID-19. The INTO understands that the publication of this report from the expert sub-committee on schools is imminent.

Public health advisors strongly recommend that teachers and their pupils take every opportunity to increase airflow and maximise ventilation to ensure that they achieve as much access to outdoor air as possible, to move activities outdoors, weather permitting, in the final five weeks of the school year and to adhere to the current guidance on ventilation until further notice. Where schools have identified specific areas with inadequate ventilation and where permanent structural improvements are needed the department advises them to apply to the emergency works scheme, while smaller scale work can be conducted with minor works funding which was provided to schools last December.

Sixth class graduations/class celebrations

The final months of the academic year are a time of great excitement for all children, and in particular those children in sixth class, as they look forward with anticipation and celebration to the traditional rites of passage which generally include extra-curricular and co-curricular activities as well as ceremonies to mark the end of the school year.

While it will not be possible for schools to carry these out in the traditional format again this year, schools can continue to hold end of year graduation ceremonies for sixth class pupils and should maintain any such ceremonies within the existing pods and bubble structure. Schools will be in a position to hold this ceremony in the school and while there has been a further easing of restrictions, schools will not be in a position to facilitate the attendance of parents or other family members.

Schools are also encouraged to explore ways of marking the occasion remotely for family members, by hosting virtual connectivity or prerecording videos that can be sent to them to capture and celebrate a pupil’s time in school.

Certificates of achievement, photo stories, scrapbooks and other memorabilia can also form part of the celebration. The core objective of any decision for holding a ceremony is that any activity is operated in a safe manner and must adhere to public health advice.

School tours

The Department of Education has published guidance for schools that provide various teaching and learning approaches, including bringing pupils outdoors and to local amenities to enhance learning, support social distancing, promote physical activity and help positive wellbeing.

While the easing of public health restrictions provides for travel between counties, schools are encouraged to minimise the use of buses for school tours this year, to keep it local and avoid long trips. Where buses are involved in a school trip, it would be better to avoid more than one class going on the same trip.

Decisions in relation to educational trips are a matter for each individual school authority and it is the responsibility of each school to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place while children are participating in school trips and that all such activities are in line with public health guidelines.

Use of buses

With regard to guidance for private hire of transport services by schools (for school activities such as tours, sports activities, etc.), while such services are not within the remit of the department’s School Transport Scheme and any such arrangements are a matter for schools to organise and manage locally, the department advises that any private transport arrangements organised by a school should comply with the general guidelines for children using School Transport Scheme services, which advise:

  • Individuals should not use transport if displaying obvious symptoms.
  • Groups should maintain physical distancing while waiting for transport.
  • Groups should sit in pre-assigned seating which will be next to a sibling or a child from their class group where possible (this should be the same child at all times).
  • Participants should use hand sanitiser prior to boarding, while onboard and when disembarking the bus.
  • Participants should observe respiratory etiquette at all times – covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and disposing of it properly, or by coughing or sneezing into their elbow while waiting for on-board transport services.
  • Individuals should disembark the bus one by one in an orderly fashion.
Contact Sports/ Sports Days

The Department has published guidance that the use of external coaches or tutors is at the discretion of the board of management of a school, which must satisfy itself that these visitors are Garda vetted, adhere to public health advice, are trained by their governing bodies with regard to COVID-19 and fully implement the school’s COVID-19 response plan.

Sports days are an enjoyable part of the end of school term activities and help to form happy childhood memories of time spent in school. Schools can hold school sports days, without the attendance of parents or family members. Schools must ensure that sport days and all sporting activities are in accordance with the school’s COVID-19 response plan with particular emphasis on holding such activities within the existing pods and bubble structure.