Member update – key updates on the reopening of schools

Over the course of the last month, representatives from the INTO have met regularly with officials in the Department of Education, public health experts, school managerial authorities and sister unions. At a public health briefing last week, heated discussions took place in respect of members in the early stages of their pregnancy and certain cohorts of immunocompromised staff not eligible for vaccination.  

Public health have clarified that although the guidance for education settings is a shorter document than the guidance for healthcare settings, it is based on the same principles. They and Department of Education officials have confirmed that the Occupational Health Service/ Medmark will take ‘Covid-Age’ and pre-morbidities into account when risk-assessing education staff.

Following calls by teacher unions and after the publication of the revised Covid-19 Response Plan for Schools, the Minister for Education made a statement regarding planning for the 2021-22 school year and the new public health advice for staff who work in education settings.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said unvaccinated pregnant teachers and others who have been unable to get the vaccine should be given the option of remote working until they are fully immunised.

“We have called for the department to engage with these workers directly, to explain and defend the latest public health advice, and in practical terms, to establish a helpline to provide advice directly to affected cohorts,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle.

“We have also called for this defined cohort of workers to be facilitated fairly with remote working until they have achieved the significant vaccine protection, which has been afforded to all other education workers.

Further amendments to Covid Response Plans

After the release of the recent Covid-19 Response Plans the INTO sought a number of clarifications from the Department of Education, and following our intervention Sections 5.1 and 5.5 of the Covid-19 Response Plans for Primary and Special Schools published last week have been amended as follows: 

·       The Department has confirmed that the updates to the Covid-19 Response Plan notified to schools last week reflect the updates to the central documents agreed by the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) and as advised to schools they do not require any new or additional action by schools. 

·       The plans are living documents and therefore they can be updated to reflect any new public health information or indeed any errors or omissions. INTO will continue to make it clear that updates must be clearly flagged with members on the ground. 

·       Section 5.1 of the document has been updated with the following list of common and uncommon symptoms:

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 it is important to know and recognise the symptoms of coronavirus (which includes the DELTA variant). They are: 

Common symptoms of coronavirus include: 

·  a fever (high temperature – 38 degrees Celsius or above). 

·  a new cough – this can be any kind of cough, not just dry. 

·  shortness of breath or breathing difficulties. 

·  loss or change in your sense of smell or taste – this means you’ve noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal 

·  Fatigue 

·  Aches and Pains 

Other uncommon symptoms of coronavirus include:

·  sore throat 

·  headaches 

·  runny or stuffy noses 

·  feeling sick or vomiting 

·  diarrhoea 

For clarity a further line has also been added to say: 

Symptoms may be subject to change so regular review of the HSE Website is advised. 

·       Section 5.5 – The Department of Education has clarified that the public health guidance in respect of mask wearing has not changed regarding primary school age children. It is not the case that this precludes any parent deciding that their primary school child should wear a face covering.

·       The Department further clarified that it is recommended that visitors to the school should be by appointment only, and where possible, that parent-teacher meetings should continue remotely. If they are in person, physical distancing and the wearing of normal face masks should continue. 

·       The Department of Education’s Building and Planning unit will support schools who cannot provide adequately ventilated classrooms either through the provision of  air filtration systems or more likely by physically adapting the rooms.

·       The INTO has also been advised that education staff who did not complete Covid-19 Induction training last year will be expected to do it prior to schools reopening this year.

Antigen tests 

A pilot process on the use of rapid antigen diagnostic tests (RADT) in identifying Covid-19 in further and higher education settings and the early years (pre-school) sector began in July of this year. 

The Covid-19 rapid testing group recommended antigen testing five months ago. It is imperative that we see movement on this matter soon. Antigen testing could play a critical role in helping to contain Covid-19 outbreaks in our schools.