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Shift in tone on school ‘safety’ is at odds with advice over many months

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Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn claimed yesterday that officials “never said schools are a safe environment” as scrutiny on the spread of the virus among young children intensifies.

However there are multiple examples of him, his Nphet colleagues, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Education Minister all saying that schools are safe.

The Irish Independent found at least 10 instances over several months where officials repeated the mantra.

In a video posted to the Department of Education YouTube channel on April 9 of this year, Dr Glynn himself said: “What we have seen from September to date is that in general, schools have been what we would regard as a safe environment.”

Speaking on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show yesterday, Dr Glynn said cases in schools are high because parents and children are not isolating properly.

He also said the country’s public health officials have never claimed that schools are safe.

“What I would fully accept is that schools are not as safe now as they were when incidence was lower, a number of months ago,” he said.

“No environment is as safe now as it was then. We’ve said all along that when incidence is really high in the community, as it is at the moment, then schools are not as safe as they would otherwise be.

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“We’ve never said that schools are a safe environment. We’ve said that they’re a lower-risk environment,” he added.

Dr Glynn said public health doctors on the ground are finding evidence that cases in schools are being driven by the attendance of children who should be self-isolating.

“It’s not to say that there aren’t outbreaks in schools – there are and always have been. It’s not to say that cases don’t transmit in schools – they do and always have done.

“But the message coming across time and again, from public health doctors on the ground, is the two core issues they’re seeing that are leading to issues in schools are, number one, the use of antigen tests in children who are symptomatic; and number two, full stop, just children who are symptomatic being picked up as cases in school.”

Senior politicians, however, have long been repeating the message that schools are “safe” in a bid to reassure anxious parents.

On November 3, speaking to reporters outside Leinster House, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “The advice we’re getting from Nphet and from the CMO is that schools are a safe place. Most transmission is happening at home rather than in schools. The issue of extending testing to schools is under consideration.”

On September 24, Education Minister Norma Foley said: “As we begin a new school term, it is still the view of the CMO Dr Tony Holohan and our public health experts that schools remain safe environments of low transmission.”

And in October, on a visit to Tipperary University Hospital, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “Our schools are safe places for our children.”

There are many more examples of similar messages during the earlier part of the pandemic – although the rise of the Delta variant and other factors have come into play during the course of this year.

Just this week a worrying snapshot of infection levels and teacher absences in the primary sector emerged in an INTO survey.

In the first two weeks of this month, a minimum of 3,726 pupils and 605 teachers tested positive – and that was only in a survey of about a quarter of primary schools.


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