24th November 2021
The INTO, along with post-primary teacher unions and school management, met Department of Education officials and representatives of the HPSC and HSE this morning.
The union noted the rising number of cases among 5 – 12-year-olds and primary school staff, challenged the Government’s narrative on outbreaks in schools and emphasised the urgent need to reinstate public-health risk assessments and contact tracing to support schools throughout the winter.
A detailed update on the meeting is provided below, in addition to clarifications on new measures to alleviate the substitution crisis and recent developments on inspections.
Antigen testing programme
The union learned that information on the rollout of the antigen testing programme, commencing on Monday, 29 November, will be shared with schools within the next 24 hours.
Where schools are made aware of a confirmed case, the parents of children in that pod will be advised by principal teachers to engage with antigen testing, using the HSE freephone number.
The Department of Education confirmed that where a staff member has been working closely with a pod within which there has been a confirmed case, that staff member will be provided with the freephone number to order antigen tests.
In the event that children from two separate pods in a classroom test positive within seven days, the parents of every pupil in the class will be informed by the school that their children should engage with antigen testing and they will be provided with the freephone number to do this. In these circumstances, all staff members working in the relevant classroom will also be advised to engage with antigen testing. Those who are engaging in antigen testing will not have to restrict their movements unless they develop symptoms or test positive, in which case they should book a PCR test.
Public health has advised that those who are vaccinated and have a confirmed case in their household must restrict their movement for five days. Anyone who is unvaccinated and has a confirmed case in their household must restrict movement for 10 days.
In light of this, the Department of Education is awaiting guidance from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform about leave arrangements for this restricted movement. They expect to be in a position to revise their FAQs for school staff by next Monday at the latest.
Messaging, social contacts and pods
The Department of Education and Public Health are preparing stronger multi-lingual messaging to emphasise that staff and children who are symptomatic must not attend school premises. Furthermore, those who develop symptoms while attending school must isolate immediately and leave the premises as soon as possible.
Public health stated that strict adherence to existing infection prevention and control measures, coupled with a minimisation of social contacts, are of absolute importance in reducing infection levels. They expressed serious concern about reports that in-person meetings and activities involving congregation were taking place in a small number of schools.
Department of Education officials reminded all education partners that the guidance on school activities that applied throughout the last school year has not changed. The organisation of classroom pods will be essential to ensure the success of the antigen-testing programme. Pods should contain a maximum of six pupils.
Booster vaccines, ventilation and school calendar
Public health confirmed that NIAC had recommended booster vaccines for medically-vulnerable people, including those who were immunocompromised, and that they expect further recommendations about the implementation of the booster-vaccine programme shortly. They also confirmed that NIAC will give consideration to the inoculation of children under 12 years of age when a vaccine suitable for this age group is licensed.
Department of Education officials confirmed that the Department’s building and planning unit has adequate funding to assist schools where ventilation or air quality continues to be below acceptable levels.
The department confirmed that there are no plans to change the arrangements for the standardised school year, with the final day of the current term being Wednesday, 22 December.
Further to recent measures announced to alleviate the substitution crisis, the INTO was advised by the Department that planning for the release of 3rd year and final year B. Eds and PME student teachers from teaching and assessments is being finalised. A considerable number of these students will be available to act in the place of teachers from Monday (29 Nov).
These student teachers, who are not yet qualified, will be paid at the unqualified daily rate of pay. We will share further details of these arrangements with members as soon as they are available.
Many student-teachers will be embarking on their school placement between now and mid-term break next February. As normal – under the same terms that applied prior to the new measures announced last night – these students will not be paid during their school placement, in keeping with the standard terms and conditions of their courses.
The INTO understands that some Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have communicated with schools to thank them for hosting their students on school placement. These HEIs confirmed that they will allow more flexibility than normal for students who may be placed in a different classroom to their base classroom on a small number of occasions during the placement in order to support these schools during this difficult period.
The department and the HEIs have also indicated flexibility in relation to the Treoraí (cooperating teacher), whose class the student-teacher is placed in, to allow them to provide emergency cover in another class. The Treoraí must remain available to support the student-teacher where necessary.
Deferral of inspections
The Inspectorate has notified schools today that it has adjusted its work programme in light of the demands on schools from the current wave of COVID-19. The relevant information note is available to download in English and in Irish.
Incidental inspections for the current term have been deferred to later in the school year. Other inspections, such as WSEs and curriculum evaluations, have already been cancelled for the current term.
The inspectorate will continue with child-protection inspections, inspections in Special Care Units and Child Detention Centres and inspections undertaken to monitor the implementation of COVID-related measures in schools.
The INTO will continue to update members with accurate information as soon as it is available.