14th December 2021
In the 10 weeks since the government withdrew public-health risk assessments, contact tracing and mass PCR testing from primary schools, the number of children aged 5-12 testing positive for COVID-19 has almost quadrupled from 1,866 cases (week 38) to 7,359 cases (week 48).
An INTO survey conducted three weeks ago found that 3.6% of staff in primary and special schools had tested positive for coronavirus in the fortnight after the mid-term break.
Following publication of the findings from our COVID-19 snapshot survey last month, which found that 31.4% of teacher absences were not covered by a substitute teacher, the Department of Education announced an additional 200 supply panel teaching posts alongside other measures.
The INTO continues to engage with the Department and fellow education partners in an effort to ensure that substitutes will be available to cover teacher absences during the Spring 2022 term.
It remains imperative for the safe operation of schools after Christmas that sufficient personnel should be readily available to act in place of teachers who are unavoidably absent due to COVID-19.
Risk mitigation measures
Following a sustained campaign by the INTO, and our members, the government has taken steps in recent weeks to scale up public-health risk mitigation measures in schools, including the rollout of antigen testing and funding to address school ventilation. The Department of Education circular on the Minor Works Scheme is expected to issue shortly.
NPHET also recently recommended the wearing of face coverings by children in 3rd to 6th classes. This infection prevention and control measure will be reviewed by NPHET prior to mid-term break in February. The government has also announced a vaccination programme for children aged 5-11.
The INTO sought assurances that those in the very-high-risk health category and pregnant women would be prioritised for booster vaccines, and that following the provision of boosters to the elderly, vulnerable and front-line healthcare workers, that all who work in crowded settings would receive booster vaccines as quickly as possible. It is anticipated that government will announce an acceleration of the booster vaccine programme this week.
Urgent review of primary needed
Following last week’s meeting of the INTO Central Executive Committee, the union is calling on government to immediately initiate a review of the first term of the primary school year in conjunction with key primary education stakeholders. The Department of Education and Public Health must enter into focused discussions with the INTO to discuss:
- The swift reinstatement of public health support for primary schools from January 6.
- The development of a widespread, high-quality public awareness campaign, supported by influential and popular public figures, designed to highlight the importance of adhering to all infection prevention and control measures in order to improve school safety.
- The INTO also calls on government to fast-track the booster vaccine programme for all workers in crowded settings and to ensure that this programme is rolled out alongside the inoculation of children aged 5-11 between now and the reopening of schools on January 6, 2022.
INTO President Joe McKeown, reacting to recent reports from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO), said: “The Irish government must take the advice of the ECDC on board and implement their recommendations, as set out below, ahead of the reopening of schools in the new year.”
“Given the continued risk of transmission amongst children, high levels of prevention and preparedness are required in the educational system.
“Given high incidence in this group, risk of transmission between children and from children to other groups, particularly those who are unvaccinated, remains high.
“Contact tracing is an essential public health measure to fight the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in conjunction with active case finding and testing, and in synergy with other measures such as physical distancing. Contacts of a case should be promptly identified and provided with information about suitable infection control measures, symptom monitoring, testing and quarantine.”
The WHO has stated that the vaccination of children is another vital school protection measure.
INTO call to support schools
Taking this expert advice into account, the INTO implores government to strengthen its efforts to support the safe operation of schools between Christmas and Easter.
INTO General Secretary John Boyle, reacting to publication of the funding amount for the enhanced Minor Works Grant, said:
The announcement that the minor works grant for primary and special schools will be increased by 50% to enable schools to address small-scale ventilation improvements is very welcome. Schools will be expected to use the recently-published Room Air Cleaner guidance when determining what additional measures they will need to introduce to address air quality.
It behoves the Department of Education to provide professional advice, guidance and support to Boards of Management, who will have to make key decisions regarding the improvement of air-quality in their schools. The Department must also provide bespoke solutions quickly for schools who cannot fully remediate ventilation issues through the use of the minor works grant announced this week.
We call for a dedicated team of Department officials to be available to support schools and to carry out technical assessments where these are necessary, so that this important work can be completed within a few weeks of schools reopening in January.”
The INTO will continue to make representations to government for additional supports for primary and special schools so that everything necessary is in place to ensure that schools can operate safely throughout the spring.