Teachers who are close contacts of a confirmed case of Covid-19 will not have the period they must restrict their movements cut short to return to the classroom in order to address a staffing crisis, Education Minister Norma Foley has said.
Currently close contacts must stay at home and restrict their movements for five days if they have had a booster vaccine or ten days if only double vaccinated.
Minister Foley said she was not pursuing a special derogation for teachers similar to one in place for healthcare workers where asymptomatic close contacts may return to work if they test negative for Covid-19.
People confirmed to have the virus must still strictly isolate for seven days if boosted or ten if double vaccinated.
This comes as a union leader said around 8,000 primary school teachers - up to 15pc of the workforce - will not return to schools tomorrow due to Covid-19 isolation, and as principals warned that in some schools 50pc of staff would be out tomorrow.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said there’s “not a hope” there will be enough replacement teachers and it was inevitable that some classes would have to be taught remotely by asymptomatic teachers who are close contacts isolating at home.
Secondary teacher reps estimate anywhere between 10pc and 40pc of second level teachers could be out tomorrow. This could be anything from 1,800 to 7,200 teachers.
Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) president Brian O’Doherty told RTÉ a survey of about 1,500 schools found half were facing staff shortages of 20pc, while 8pc were expecting more than 50pc of teachers to be out due to Covid.
He said 40pc said they would not have enough staff to reopen all classes.
On Tuesday, the minister confirmed that schools would return as planned on Thursday despite calls from some teachers’ representatives for a staggered reopening.
Today the Irish Secondary Students’ Union also called for a delayed reopening, with priority for children with special educational needs and those sitting leaving and junior cert exams. It also called for HEPA air filters to be urgently provided in all classrooms.
Government leaders have instructed Nphet to review the measures around Covid-19 close contact rules for people who have received booster vaccines amid staff shortages across society.
Nphet is to meet tomorrow to examine the Government’s request to change the isolation rules and it is hoped Coalition leaders can make a decisions soon after receiving the advice.
Minister Foley said she was “not pursuing nor invoking the derogation in our schools” but admitted the coming days and weeks “will not be without challenge” and said children are best served when being taught in the classroom through in-person learning.
A range of measures including substitute and student teachers being drafted in, along with teachers on career breaks, will be used to cover teachers who are isolating, Minister Foley said.
“A hierarchy of priority will be placed on children with additional needs, or on special schools, special class settings and younger children who cannot engage with remote learning and second-level exam year students,” Ms Foley told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
“The reality is every day for the next few weeks will bring challenges to school management but the Department of Education will work with schools on the ground.”
Minister Foley said that schools dealing with staff shortages should contact the inspectorate to work through the issue and come to the best solution for each individual school.
The Minister said she has asked public health officials to review the issue of medical-grade masks for teachers after teachers called for them to be mandated but they will not have medical-grade masks when returning to the classroom tomorrow.
“Public health have told us they are satisfied with the mitigation measures that are in place but the unions have raised the issue of facemasks, so, public health did give an undertaking yesterday to review this,” Minister Foley said.
Another issue raised by the INTO was the absence of contact tracing at primary level but this will not be a feature once schools reopen tomorrow, outside of special classes, the Minister confirmed.
Minister Foley said, as is always the case, the guidelines are under review and changes will be made if they are recommended by public health officials.
Currently only limited contact tracing is being done for primary level, with the option of antigen tests being sent to families.
Infection and prevention control advice should be led by medical experts, the Minister said, adding that she “trusts parents” to follow the measures currently in place around testing in pods in schools.
At a Cabinet meeting today, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly will seek Government approval for a €90m purchase of antiviral pills which reduce the rate of hospitalisation and death in people who contract Covid-19.
The Pfizer antiviral, Paxlovid, reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19 in people with at least one underlying condition by 89pc in its final clinical trial.
Meanwhile, a survey has shown that 70pc of parents do want schools to reopen while a quarter (24pc) believe they shouldn’t.
The survey carried out by ParentsandBrands found that one in five parents would prefer to have their child vaccinated before sending them back to school.
Jill Holtz, co-founder of ParentsandBrands, said: “The feedback we are getting from parents shows a mix of views. Parents who want schools to reopen because they feel education and routine are important are still saying so under caution. Only 13pc of parents feel that it’s time we learned to live with Covid.”