26th November 2021
Further to the update provided earlier this week (Weds 24 Nov), the INTO has detailed subsequent, latest developments for members following clarification on various issues.
Antigen testing guidance
The Department of Education has announced detailed guidance on the primary school antigen-testing programme, which the INTO has been advocating for throughout the year. The union welcomes this initiative which will begin on Monday, 29 November.
The INTO and Fórsa negotiated the following additional precautionary measure for school staff: where there is a confirmed case in a pod, an SNA or teacher working closely with children in the pod may also avail of the antigen tests and request them in the same way as parents/guardians are instructed to do so for children.
Where there is an additional case in a second pod in the room within seven days, the class teacher and other staff members working in the classroom/special education room may request the antigen tests through a freephone number. This is an entirely voluntary measure and staff should continue to attend the workplace unless they develop symptoms or receive a detected result on the antigen test.
A letter to principals with detailed guidance has been issued by the department and is available to download (English version and Irish version). Please note, the freephone number has been supplied to principals who have been asked to share it only as appropriate.
EMA approves vaccine for children aged 5-11
The European Union’s drug regulator has approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said that a panel of experts “recommended granting an extension of indication for the COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty to include use in children aged 5 to 11.”
The EMA concluded that the benefits of Comirnaty in children aged five to 11 outweigh the risks, particularly in those with conditions that increase the risk of severe COVID-19.
The vaccine is already cleared for use in people aged 12 and over in the EU.
The Irish government expects the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to approve vaccines for children in Ireland in this age group in the coming days and that these lower-dose vaccines will be available for children early next year.
The government expects that over 1 million people will receive a booster vaccine by early December. The INTO has made representations to the Department of Education and public health for a fast-tracking of booster vaccines for education staff as soon as possible after at-risk, vulnerable and elderly groups have received boosters.
At recent meetings with Department of Education officials and public-health representatives, the INTO raised concerns about the ventilation and air quality within schools. We have called for extra CO2 monitors, the provision of air filtration systems and more permanent solutions where needed.
The department has confirmed that they have established a dedicated team to support schools that may have concerns about ventilation. Officers are also available to contact schools where required, walking through the steps the schools should take to deploy good ventilation practices etc.
Where it is not possible for a school to access the expertise of an engineer or architect, and where necessary, a technical assessment to assist the school can be facilitated through the department.
Schools that identify inadequate ventilation in a room can utilise their minor work grant (for minor improvements) or apply for emergency works grant assistance to address ventilation enhancements on a permanent basis.
Where the above measures have been undertaken, and poor ventilation continues to exist in a particular room/area, air cleaners may be considered as an additional measure in conjunction with other methods of ventilation that are available.
There is no one solution that fits all scenarios – each application requires bespoke analysis and selection of the appropriate unit(s) matched to the specific room size and volume. If, following consultation with a supplier, a school feels that its individual space may require specific technical specialist advice then the assistance of a Chartered Engineer or Registered Architect can be sought.
The INTO reiterates our previous advice to schools that when they encounter problems with air quality or ventilation, they should contact the Department of Education’s Building and Planning Unit as matter of urgency.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has recommended the wearing of face masks for primary school children from 3rd class upwards until the middle of February. A final decision on the matter is expected to be taken by the Cabinet on Tuesday.
NPHET has also recommended that children aged nine and over wear masks on public transport, in shops and in other public settings where the rule currently applies for those aged 13 and over.
Public health experts are advising that children avoid certain gatherings for at least the next two weeks, including nativity performances and other similar seasonal events. They are also calling for a pause on indoor birthday parties, sleepovers and play dates.
NPHET has also recommended the extension of the COVID-19 certificate to all settings where there is a high risk of virus transmission.
We will inform members of official guidance on these matters as soon as it is available once a decision is confirmed.
Our union’s focus is on making primary schools as safe as possible for our members and children. We will continue to impress upon the government the absolute necessity for augmented support for our efforts to do this.
The consistent, tireless effort made by our members to maintain continuity of learning for their pupils throughout the pandemic must be reciprocated by government at this very challenging time for everyone in our schools.