Level 5 restrictions allow for discretion about whether schools should close, but, in this instance, Nphet is advising that measures are imposed elsewhere so that schools can remain open.
Government policy is that the position on schools in a Level 5 scenario “would depend on the precise situation and evidence at time.”
That is stated in the Resilience and Recovery Plan for Living with Covid-19 published in mid-September.
That plan set out the framework, commonly known as Levels 1-5, to provide clarity on what measures would appropriate around the country based on the pattern and progress of Covid-19.
It stresses the importance of education and provides for schools and creches to remain open in Levels 1-4, with protective measures in place .
But it draws a distinction for Level 5, advising that if it comes to that, “recommendations will be based on the precise situation and evidence at time”.
That is why teacher unions are concerned and seeking urgent meetings and clarity about the status of schools, whether at levels 4 or 5.
The re-opening of schools a little over a month ago predated the Level 1-5 framework, and happened when the country was at a lower level of alert than pertains now.
Schools are due to close for a week for the Hallowe’en midterm break anyway, starting Monday October 26, meaning they would be effectively closed from Friday October 23.
Transmission of the virus within schools is low and where cases occur they are more likely to be brought in form outside.
According to HSE figures last week, Covid-19 have been detected in 140 of the country’s 4,000 mainstream schools since pupils returned.
Some 105 primary schools and 35 post primary schools had undergone, or were undergoing, mass testing, one of the key public health responses when Covid-19 is identified in an education facility.
As well as that, Covid had been identified in 39 childcare facilities and eight special education facilities, bringing the overall number of education settings where testing has been carried out to 187.
More than 4,455 students and teachers from the 187 settings have undergone testing to check whether they had the virus. The testing led to a further 87 cases being detected - 16 in childcare facilities, 49 in primary schools, 12 in post-primary and ten in special education facilities.
Teacher unions have expressed concern about schools staying opening if the country moves into Level 5 public health restrictions.
They are seeking urgent meetings with the authorities and a review to ascertain how it can be safe for schools to remain open.
Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) President Ann Piggott said they were is writing to Education Minister Norma Foley to request that she initiate a comprehensive review of the medical and related guidance being applied in schools.
Ms Piggott said they would also be requesting that the education stakeholders at second-level, such as parents, teacher unions , principals and school managers, meet to discuss all associated issues,
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) General Secretary Michael Gillespie said their members were “extremely worried by current events and their health and safety in the workplace.
“We have many members with serious underlying health issues and also many members who share a household with people with underlying health issues.
Mr Gillespie said they wanted “urgent engagement in relation to what increased protections will apply to teachers in an escalation to Level 4 restrictions.
“We have already sought detailed clarification on the why it would be safe for schools to remain open at Level 5 if the rest of society is effectively locked down.
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) General Secretary John Boyle also called for an immediate review of the public health landscape for schools.
“Such a review must determine if it is safe for our schools to stay open. It is imperative that the education stakeholders convene early this week to explore the issues which may need to be dealt with.”
In a letter to Ms Foley today, Mr Boyle called for clarity about what measures would apply to schools in the event of either Level 4 or Level 5 restrictions being imposed.
In relation to Level 4, he said they needed to know what additional measures government would take to protect everyone in primary and special schools, compared with what is currently in place for schools including those in Dublin and Donegal, where Level 3 applies.
He said it was “inconceivable” that the same protections - hand sanitising, hand washing, enhanced cleaning, ventilation, pods and bubbles - would apply across all levels from 1 to 4
Crucially, he added they also needed clarity on the plans for primary and special schools in areas where Level 5 would apply.
“In our view it is incomprehensible that our schools, which have the largest class sizes in Europe, would remain fully open at a time where infection levels were so high in the community that no indoor gatherings or events were permissible,” said Mr Boyle.