The education minister has said “natural ventilation” through vents or windows is best for schools when asked why classrooms had not been provided with air filtration systems to combat Covid amid escalating cases.
Minister Norma Foley said her department was following expert advice and the country’s public health officials are confident transmission remains low in schools.
“Every step of the way in terms of our schools, we have followed public health advice. We have followed public health evaluation,” she told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme.
“It is the expert evaluation of everyone from the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, Professor Philip Nolan and others telling us that schools continue to be places of low transmission,” she added.
Minister Foley said 35,000 CO2 monitors have been provided to schools and supports are in place to assist them on a case-by-case basis.
“In the first instance, the expert reports are telling us that natural ventilation is the best possible source of ventilation. Equally so, where there are difficulties in individual schools, we have advised schools that they can either contact locally, engineers or architects, or we have a technical advice team available within the department that has made itself available to schools on the ground.”
“Sometimes the issues are small issues in terms of vents or replacement of windows, or they are bigger issues. If they are bigger issues the department will put in place measures and if that includes the necessity to provide filtration that will be done also,” she said.
Meanwhile, Minister Foley confirmed that hundreds of student teachers are now available to provide substitute cover in primary schools as pressure on the teaching sector continues.
This week Minister Foley announced a raft of measures to tackle the staff shortages in the country’s primary schools, which are being caused by the high volumes of teachers out of work with Covid-19 and other seasonal illnesses.
They include an agreement with third-level colleges to facilitate the release of student teachers, the return of teacher educators who are on secondment to Department of Education and the expansion of teacher supply panels with an additional 200 posts coming on stream.
Minister Foley said groups of teaching students from the Hibernia and Mary Immaculate courses are now available for cover work.
“Many of these teachers are currently available, for example the student teachers. Hibernia teachers, 500 of them coming on stream now, 434 from Mary I and indeed more will come available,” she added.
In relation to the rollout of the antigen testing programme in schools, Minister Foley said plans are in place to begin the testing scheme from Monday.
“All guidance in relation to that will be made available to schools this week and indeed to parents also,” she said.
However, speaking on the same programme the head of the INTO John Boyle said the Department of Health must resume the contact tracing system – which was removed from schools at the end of September – to protect staff and students.
Mr Boyle said the introduction of antigen testing is a welcome measure but argued a recent European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) report has also highlighted the need for contact tracing.
“The Government are acting on an ECDC report from the end of October that recommended antigen testing but it also recommended strongly that there would be contact tracing and it did state that sharing a classroom can be a high-risk environment.”
“We know that schools are not as safe as they were even a year ago because the number of people infected in schools is much higher. So, we just need to amplify the measures and if public health got back onto the pitch here it would give great sustenance to principals and to teachers in the difficult winter months ahead,” he added.