COVID infection protection and control measures should stay in place in schools to protect the Leaving Certificate and Junior Cycle exams, a teachers’ union leader has said.
This is among the reasons put forward, at a meeting attended by teacher unions and school management bodies, for the retention of Covid restrictions in classrooms after the mid-term break.
Any lifting of the school measures must be slow, they told a briefing with public health advisers and Department of Education officials.
The briefing came ahead of Thursday’s meeting of the public health advisory group, Nphet, which will consider whether restrictions should remain in place in schools after the mid-term break.
Schools close for all or part of next week and will return on February 28.
Following its review, Nphet will send its recommendations to Government, which will make the final decisions in advance of the return to school.
Today’s meeting was the first between the education partners and government officials since early January.
A Department of Education spokesperson said feedback about the current experience in schools was provided by the education partners, who were advised the measures in place to protect against Covid would be reviewed by Nphet at its upcoming meeting.
When restrictions in wider society were lifted or eased last month, there was no change in the situation in schools, pending a full review.
The measures include: teachers, second-level pupils and primary pupils from third class up wearing masks; hand sanitisers; social distancing such as classroom small-group ‘pods’ of pupils; and staggered break times in order to reduce interaction between classes.
The education partners have put forward a case against any sudden lifting of Covid mitigation measures while the disease remains rampant in the community as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to circulate.
While the vaccination programme has provided significant protection against serious illness and death, the scale of infection - 3,494 confirmed PCR cases and 3,609 positive antigen tests were reported today - is causing high levels of teacher and student absence.
The figures likely underestimate the true spread of infection as the antigen tests results are self-reported, while many people with symptoms may not be doing any tests.
The school-aged population is included in the four to 39-year-old age group, which is no longer required to do a confirmatory PCR test, unless the individual is in at-risk group.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie questioned the accuracy of the official figures and said their anecdotal evidence from schools was that the numbers were higher.
Mr Gillespie said while it varied from school to school, they were still hearing that in some schools a lot of staff and students were missing.
He said they were told yesterday that while the figures had risen in January and February, they were now stabilising.
Mr Gillespie said there was a need to protect the Leaving Cert, some practical assessments for which were already taking place, while orals and other practicals would continue in the coming months.
When it comes to the written papers in June, Leaving Cert students who cannot sit exams because of Covid illness or isolation will have the fall-back of a second sitting in July.
However, Mr Gillespie said Junior Cycle exam candidates have no second sitting and that was another reason “for the need to keep Covid out of schools”.
Among the other education partners seeking a delay to any lifting of restrictions is the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), whose general secretary John Boyle said that any relaxation should not happen for two more months at least, unless public health could confirm that the situation in primary schools would improve dramatically in coming weeks.
The Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) secretary general Séamus Mulconry is also advocating for any easing of restrictions to be phased.
Meanwhile, some pressure has emerged from parents for a rapid end to mask wearing by primary pupils.
A key part of the public health rationale for continuing mask wearing by primary pupils was to ensure all five to 11-year-olds had the opportunity to be vaccinated and, according most recent figures more than 100,000 of the 480,500 eligible have registered. Most of those are due to be fully vaccinated by February 28.
Concern was also expressed at the meeting that schools would find it harder to get substitutes after the break because student teachers who have been filling in since after Christmas are returning to college.