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Principals' fury over lack of HSE contacts

As mid-term break ends, head teachers are in the dark over promised public health support, reports Wayne O'Connor


Norma Foley. Picture: Mark Condren

Norma Foley. Picture: Mark Condren

Norma Foley. Picture: Mark Condren

Principals have yet to receive contact details for dedicated HSE teams working to help schools stay open - just one day before they return from mid-term break.

Education Minister Norma Foley last week confirmed the existing dedicated school teams in each HSE area will be given extra resources to help when positive cases of Covid-19 are identified among pupils and teachers.

Schools were also promised direct access to these teams after complaining they were hit by logjams preventing teachers from speaking with public health experts for guidance on managing a positive case.

However, as of last night, schools were still unaware of the contact details for these dedicated schools teams.

Sources in the department said they expect schools to get these contact details early this week, possibly tomorrow.

Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie has welcomed the extra resources but said principals need access to the HSE teams immediately.

"No notifications have arrived to principals or to schools about the creation of the dedicated teams in each of the regions or contact details for same," he said yesterday.

"If school managements had instant contact with these teams during the working day from Monday it would help principals in keeping schools open, safe and keeping Covid-19 out of the schools."

He added it would have been useful to have these details over the weekend before schools open as some principals were being made aware of students testing positive for the virus last week during the mid-term break.

"People are reporting Covid-positive cases now and depending on when they did their test, such as on Monday and they only got the result last Friday, it is possible they were in school before the mid-term while they were positive.

"This is a huge call for a principal to have to make, especially with Leaving Cert students.

"If you put yourself in the shoes of that student who is anxious about calculated grades, being out of school for 14 days seems like a lifetime to them because in their mind now everything they do counts to the Leaving Cert, even if that is not the case.

"Another huge call for a principal is having to tell a staff member they are a close contact. If a teacher is a close contact anwd they are out for 14 days that puts huge pressure on substitute provision and in some areas you just can't get subs.

"You can't change that 14-day rule but it shows why contact tracing is vital and why we need to limit the spread," he added. "If we are not limiting the spread of the virus in the community then the incidence rates in schools will increase, too. The virus is being brought into the schools."

He said schools will need the support of their communities to stay open, and it was important Covid-19 case numbers drop and then remain low.

"I am concerned that what they promised us on Wednesday will not be delivered in the short space of time between then and Monday.

"I think they are depending on this [dedicated team] working and the [Covid case] numbers dropping while they are increasing staff and those two lines crossing. They can cope once those two lines cross.

"The TUI is grateful for what the community is doing to limit spread but these efforts need to continue."

He warned confidence in the system was eroding because of the recent contact-tracing issues and concerns about cleaning products used in schools.

This follows the withdrawal of 52 sanitisers and cleaning products from schools because they had not been properly registered for use.

Despite this, principals remain confident schools will be ready to open tomorrow after a weekend scramble to replace the products that have been taken out of use.

National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals director Clive Byrne said schools will have put arrangements in place allowing them to reopen.

This will be key for students who opted to sit the 2020 exams later this month.

"There won't be chaos. The schools will open and we will make sure the needs of teachers and pupils are catered for in the short-term but it may be the case that schools cannot get the replacement products in for Monday but will have sufficient supplies of other goods to enable them to operate," he said.

"The other thing on principals' minds is that they go back on Monday and two weeks later 500 of them will have students sitting their Leaving Cert.

"That's another complication. What we have been trying to do is cope with a lot of unknowns and the data coming back is largely positive."

According to Department of Education and HSE data, schools have not been seen as drivers of Covid-19 infections. The positivity rate in primary schools is 2.7pc and a little lower at second level (2.1pc). This compares to a national positivity rate of 10pc.

Mr Byrne said schools will need further support to keep schools safe.

"The schools are functioning but they are not flourishing," he said.

"We are in a situation where the Department of Agriculture can track every sheep in Connemara, but we can't get back confirmation that someone is a close contact and needs to self-isolate in sufficient time to enable the schools to operate effectively as they can.

"What we are looking for is improved levels of fairness from the HSE and Department of Health and I think that will happen."

A spokesman for the Department of Education said a full range of supports are available to help schools when the return tomorrow.

He said this includes enhanced supervision, payments to improve cleaning regimes and supply PPE, funding for extra staff and substitute cover and the provision of 1,000 teachers to help reduce class sizes to allow for social distancing. Schools will remain safe, he insisted.

"All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure," he added.

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