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School’s out, but what is being done to make sure pupils and staff return to a safe environment next week?

It’s hoped the introduction of dedicated School Teams will bring clarity to contact tracing and dealing with a positive case in the classroom

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More than one million pupils, teachers and special needs assistant are taking time off this week after a busy first semester. Photo: Mark Condren

More than one million pupils, teachers and special needs assistant are taking time off this week after a busy first semester. Photo: Mark Condren

More than one million pupils, teachers and special needs assistant are taking time off this week after a busy first semester. Photo: Mark Condren

Mid-term break didn’t come a moment too soon for schools struggling with the increasing level of Covid infection seeping into their buildings and a public health response that was, at times, seriously inadequate.

As more than one million pupils, teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) take the week off, work is underway to improve preventative and protection measures in schools before the return next Monday.

Principals have been complaining that the contact tracing and testing system wasn’t fit for purpose for schools? How was it not working?

The service became overwhelmed because they didn’t have enough staff to deal with the explosion on infection through September-October.

There is also anecdotal evidence of contact tracers not always being familiar with the appropriate response for school settings, with schools sometimes seeing inconsistences in the advice they were giving out. HSE guidelines allow for different responses depending of the unique circumstance of each case, but it has caused some confusion between different school communities.

I thought schools were safe places, with very little transmission of the infection within them?

Yes, that is what evidence says, but pupils or staff may bring the disease in from outside, or a parent of a pupil, or a staff member may advise the principal they have tested positive. However, low transmission doesn't mean no transmission and underscores the need to have quick testing and contact tracing in place.

So how exactly was contact tracing and testing not up to the mark?

If a case is suspected within a school community, the quicker the turnaround in the test, the quicker the tracing of close contacts can begin. Schools could have been waiting three to four days for a test result. Then, when a case was confirmed, many experienced further delays with contact tracing.

It could have meant pupils or staff self-isolating, and out of school for an unnecessarily long period of time or, alternatively, a continuing risk present in the school. One principal said he could have been waiting up to 10 days for the outcome of a contact-tracing process.

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One of the practical problems was finding substitute teachers to cover for a teacher who is self-isolating.

Those delays also cause a lot of anxiety for parents, pupils and staff members and put more pressure on the principal.

A major issue was poor out-of-hours contact with principals who could not get necessary information if, for instance, a parent confirmed a case on a Friday evening. A couple of schools took their own decision to close last Monday for that reason

So how is it going to change?

There will be dedicated School Teams in each HSE area to assist schools where a positive case of Covid-19 is identified. They will be led by public health professionals and will be supported by the Department of Education.

Overall, it should enhance the quality of communication between the HSE and schools and lead to quicker turnaround times in testing and tracing. It should also provide absolute clarity for a school community on why, in one case, a pod is sent home and in the other the whole class is sent home.

The Department of Education has suggested the School Teams may also have a role in helping to identify substitute teachers for schools who need them as part of their support to a positive case, which would be very helpful.

Can we be sure the service will be enhanced?

Much will depend on the level of resources devoted to these teams and that is among the topics in discussions that are going on this week involving the Department of Education, Nphet, HSE and education stakeholders. such as teacher unions and school management bodies.

Is contact tracing and testing the only issue of concern?

No, there was a problem with a brand of hand sanitiser at the end of last week. Hand gel and other products under this brand are being withdrawn from schools and the Department of Education is reviewing all products including wipes, hand sanitiser, hand sanitiser refill, hand soap and detergents. There are about 150 products in all, provided by 10 suppliers.

Anything else?

The teacher unions have raised several other issues. For instance, they want an explanation of the difference between a close contact and a casual contact in a school setting. They want the class and staff in question tested within 24 hours, as well as restricted movement by this group until the testing and tracing process is complete.

They are also seeking a review of teachers deemed to be in the ‘high risk’ category – who are expected to attend at the workplace – while those in the ‘very high risk’ category work remotely

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) wants a review of the policy on the wearing of face coverings by pupils and school staff in primary school settings, reflecting up-to-date public health guidance.


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