30th November 2021
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) acknowledges the decision taken by Government today to recommend the wearing of face masks for pupils from third to sixth classes in primary schools.
Given the ever-deteriorating public health landscape, with the number of children aged 5-12 testing positive growing by 240% during November and amounting to 19,673 cases in four weeks since November 1st, the INTO called for up-to-date public health advice to assess a wide range of public health mitigation measures in our schools.
Public-health experts play an invaluable role in providing advice on the steps that need to be taken to protect our schools, and wider communities, as we seek to combat the alarming rise in Covid-19 infection levels among primary school communities. We acknowledge the recent steps taken by NPHET and NIAC to provide up-to-date recommendations on several issues, including antigen testing, face masks and vaccination programmes, booster vaccines and children’s vaccines.
We will look at the guidance on any additional measures including face-coverings decided by Cabinet and seek to ensure our members are aware of any proposals put forward by Government.
It is imperative that Government communicate arrangements for any additional measures clearly and consistently to school communities. Similarly, it is essential that any guidance accommodates students with additional needs who, on medical grounds, will not be able to wear a face covering when in school.
The INTO remains of the view that contact tracing provided us with a clearer picture of transmission in our schools and we continue to call for this to be reinstated. It served us well and, with some modifications, renewed contract tracing could be particularly helpful at this juncture. Should public-health capacity for contact tracing need to be increased to reintroduce it in schools, without having a negative impact on tracing in other settings where transmission is prevalent, we would encourage Government to provide resources to facilitate this.
Driving down transmission
Accounting for 19% of the general population contracting the virus, children who attend primary schools are now the cohort with the highest Infection levels in Ireland.
Driving down transmission levels among 5–12-year-old children must continue to be a key priority for us all to ensure that schools can operate safely and effectively in the coming months. It is obvious from the high number of families who have ordered antigen tests (8,500 on the first day) following the confirmation of positive cases who attended primary schools in recent days, that the primary school system will need very close scrutiny and strong support from public health in the period ahead. Those who work in primary schools are deeply concerned about the number of pupils and staff members who are unable to attend school due to Covid-19 and are struggling to cope with the disruption this is causing. It is therefore imperative that public health keeps the implementation of these additional measures under review and that they reinstate proper support structures to counteract the rising infection levels in primary school communities.
The provision of more air quality monitors and air filtration systems to primary and special schools would also greatly assist efforts to limit transmission of the virus in school settings. Department of Education officials confirmed this week 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.
Reacting to today’s announcement, INTO General Secretary John Boyle commented:
Throughout the pandemic this union has sought to be a constructive education partner, working with Government to address the needs of our members and their schools, and seeking to ensure decisions are made in a timely fashion. Clear and unambiguous guidance increases the likelihood that Government decisions will work well on the ground in schools. It’s essential the guidance is both clear and carefully-crafted, ensuring that all primary school pupils are better protected than they have been since Government abandoned risk assessing primary schools at the end of September.”