15th February 2022
Yesterday, representatives of both school management and education unions met with officials from the Department of Education and public health advisors, including Dr John Cuddihy, Interim Director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).
Latest public health data
At this meeting, Public Health shared the latest data which confirms the proportion of Covid-19 cases has begun to stabilise within the 0-18-year age cohort. They added that it was too early to be confident this represented a pattern shift.
Representatives reminded the Official Side that there were more than 77,000 children and young people of school-going age that have been reported to have tested positive since the beginning of the term (6 January 2022).
With confirmatory PCR testing no longer required (since 14 January 2022) for those of school-going age, it was reported that in the first week of February, some 14,080 people (0-18) who registered a positive antigen test on the HSE portal accounted for one-third of all reported cases. It must be considered however that anecdotal feedback suggests not all positive antigen tests are being registered.
Covid-19 and schools
The Department of Education confirmed that 14,390 teachers were unable to attend for work at their school owing to Covid-19 in January. Indeed, stakeholders present highlighted that pupil and staff absences due to Covid-19 have remained high in the last week.
Arising from the review of the term to date, is a clear image that tens of thousands of pupils and staff have been unable to attend their schools as a result of Covid-19, despite the Government retaining risk-mitigation measures in these environments.
Both unions and management urged a pragmatic and cautious approach to any changes to public health mitigations in schools, expressing serious concern at the challenging situation that has prevailed in recent weeks with these mitigation measures still in place.
The INTO sought assurances that infection prevention and control measures would remain in place in both primary and special schools for the 28 school days between the mid-term break and the Easter holidays, at the very least.
Supporting school leaders
Furthermore, the INTO highlighted the frustrating experience, shared with us by school leaders, when dealing with multiple cases of Covid-19 in their school. We called for more decisive action to be taken by public health in these situations.
Public health advised the union that only 21% of children aged 5-12 have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and they committed to provide stakeholders with accurate data on the number of children hospitalised since Christmas. This request arose from media reports in recent weeks of a significant increase in the number of children becoming quite ill from the virus and stakeholders felt it was appropriate that Public Health would provide an update on this matter.
Of particular note, the INTO reminded Public Health and Department of Education officials that the low number of primary pupils vaccinated was a central element of the Government’s rationale for continuing with infection prevention and control measures in schools, following the wider relaxation of such measures announced last month. We were assured that Public Health would bring these concerns to the meeting of NPHET due to take place later this week.
Pupils and staff with underlying health conditions
The INTO welcomed the availability of antigen testing in Special Education settings, where the number of outbreaks has remained higher than in mainstream schools and the INTO emphasised the need to protect the large number of children with underlying health conditions who attend mainstream schools as well as staff who are pregnant or who have underlying health conditions.
Flexible parental leave and banking of special education hours
In the knowledge that the vast majority of student teachers who have been supporting schools will be returning to coursework from 28 February, and that it was likely that many children including those of education staff would test positive in March, the INTO demanded that the flexibility currently in place regarding parental leave and the system of banking special education teaching hours would be left in place for the coming months.
It is clear that many children with additional needs have not received their dedicated support from Special Education teachers who have been covering for mainstream colleagues, so it remains vital that a system remain in place to ensure these critical supports can be recouped by vulnerable pupils in the second half of the term.
The continuation of flexibility for teachers who need to avail of parental leave for periods of less than one week will help alleviate the substitution crisis, as many teachers may not have to avail of a full week of this leave to care for a family member who has to restrict movement.
Department of Education officials will meet primary stakeholders tomorrow and they have promised to give due consideration to the issues raised by school management and education unions including the INTO.