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Schools to close for longer at mid-term break to try curb Covid-19 - plans being discussed

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Stock photo: PA

Stock photo: PA

Stock photo: PA

The mid-term break for schools is expected to be extended as part of plans to curb Covid-19.

Schools are due to close from Monday, October 26 to Friday, October 30.

But the Government is now likely to add on an extra week to the break.

Senior Coalition sources say such a proposal has been discussed briefly but no firm decision has been made.

A decision on moving up from Level 3 of restrictions will only be made if the figures still very high.

The school closure could still be taken under any level.

A similar proposal is being considered in Northern Ireland and the two regions are trying to work more closely at aligning their responses to the pandemic.

"We want schools to be open but a lot of EU countries are looking at it to suppress virus - Northern Ireland included," a source said.

It is among a number of measures that may be considered in response to the rise in new cases which will be discussed by a Cabinet Committee on Covid 19 today.

The group is also examining whether new fines can be introduced to penalise people from breaking Covid rules such as leaving a country that is under lockdown.

The October 2020 mid-term break will see all schools close from Monday 26 October 2020 to Friday 30 October 2020 inclusive.

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The public health advisory body, Nphet, has recommended that schools remain open "at the present time", according to the Department of Education,

The department has confirmed that “no decision has been made to extend schools’ midterm breaks.”

Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Micheal Gillespie said “the first that we heard about any such potential plan was through these media reports.”

He said all education stakeholders must be fully consulted in any such move to allow for any disruption to regular school business to be planned for.

Earlier this week, TUI called for urgent engagement in relation to what increased protections will apply to teachers in any escalation to Level 4 restrictions.’

A spokesperson said that the Department of Health in recent days had advised the Department of Education that the schools’ issue has been afforded careful consideration by Nphet.

It added that "in recommending that schools remain open at the present time, even in the current trajectory of the disease, the NPHET has considered the national experience of school reopening to date."

This included the epidemiological data and information gathered through case and outbreak management.

To date the evidence demonstrates that schools have reopened safely supported by significant investment to support all infection prevention and control measures recommended by the public health authorities, the Department stated.

It stated that "the Irish experience to date supported the current international position that schools are low risk environments for COVID-19 and are not key drivers of transmission in the community.

"Many cases of COVID-19 linked to schools in Ireland have been found to have exposure to the disease outside of the school environment, e.g. in a household or social setting.

"Similarly, where testing of close contacts (of confirmed cases linked to the school), identifies additional cases of COVID-19, many of these are found to have had exposure to the disease outside of the school.

"There have been relatively few instances where transmission of COVID-19 within a school is strongly suspected by HSE Public Health."

As of October 6 , 252 schools - out of 4,000 nationally - have had/are having some testing completed as a consequence of a Public Health Risk Assessment (PHRA, which is triggered if a Covid case is identified in a school

Some 5,890 students and teachers have been involved in mass testing and, from the 252 schools that had mass tests there have been an additional 112 detected cases over and above original cases. This equates to a rate of 1.9pc.

According to the Department, international evidence, and the Irish experience to date, suggests that adults (e.g. teachers/staff) are not at higher risk of COVID-19 in the school setting than in the wider community or household.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called for "clarity" on what will happen with the mid-term break for schools.

She said: "Speculation is never useful. What we need for people is clarity."

Ms McDonald added: "There is no doubt that right across the island the level of transmission is at a very, very worrying level.

"I think we need to listen and the Government needs to listen very carefully to the public health advice."

She argued that "step one" would be the Government adopting Budget Day measures proposed by her party "to ensure that we are in a position to take any necessary measures in the secure knowledge that it will not cause a catastrophe for workers and families across this State."

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe was asked if he supports the idea of extending the mid-term break.

He said: "before I make a decision on it I would like to understand what would be the consequences of it within our schools and what's the public health rationale for doing it."

Mr Dohonoe added: "That proposal hasn't been put to me yet."

Labour Education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the government should give guidance today, that school communities need certainty.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said if the government was planning to extend the mid-term break "then we need some guidance immediately from the Minister on her plans, and the public health evidence for such a decision. Any uncertainty would add to the incredible stress already placed on school management, teachers and SNAs, parents and students.

"There may be merit to the proposal but consultation is needed, both with parent groups and with education unions and stakeholders. Getting our schools reopened was a huge collective effort, but it has been a very stressful period for students and teachers.

"I’ve visited a number of schools in recent weeks, and I am struck by the impact of remaining open has had on our school communities with Covid-19 incidence growing. The work is incredibly intense and is taking a continuous toll on those working so hard to keep our education system open.

"Students and teachers are exhausted, and the mental health strain is considerable. If the public health advice is that we need to close schools, if even for an extra week that information should be publicly shared.

"An extra week’s closure would also have a serious impact on parents who are working, in particular on front line staff in our health service. That's why guidance is needed today from Government."

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it was "imperative that when significant decisions are being made that the education stakeholders are consulted and given due notice of the outcomes so we can manage any potential disruption to our primary schools."

INTO has called for an urgent review of the public health advice on schools to determine the necessary level of protocols, protections and precautionary measures needed when the level of infection is very high in a community and for clarity on the status of schools at Level 5.

The union’s general secretary John Boyle said there were alternatives to closure and to supporting learning remotely, such as partial opening where half of each class attends school on a rota basis.

"Having the EU’s largest classes leaves little room for distancing in primary schools and next Tuesday the government will have a chance to reduce our class sizes."

On March 12, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that schools would be closed up until March 29 as the pandemic began to take hold across the country.

It was later revealed that the schools could close for up to five weeks, which would have reached April 20.

However, it was only in late August, as restrictions began to be lifted, that schools nationwide began to open, with safety measures put in place.


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