Micheál Martin, TUI.

Schools are safe - NPHET

PREMATURE INTO calls for contract tracing to resume in schools

Public health officials and teachers' unions are at odds about the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks in national schools as students return to school this week.

Parents have been advised that schools are in full compliance with all measures required by Public Health and will do all they can to protect staff, students and the wider community.

Last week concerned parents contacted The Anglo-Celt about the high level of new Covid cases, particularly among the five to 12 year age group, as children were heading back to school after the mid-term break.

At the weekend the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, reassured people that National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) are monitoring the incidence of Covid and reviewing epidemiological data.

NPHET advice states that Irish schools are relatively safe places and that child-to-child transmission of Covid within the school setting here is uncommon.

On RTÉ Radio on Sunday, the Minister for Education Norma Foley confirmed seven outbreaks in primary schools in the week before the mid-term break.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) was not in a position to provide a local spokesperson to discuss the matter. However, in a statement, the group's general secretary, John Boyle, said: “The INTO remains concerned that the number of children of primary school age testing positive has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of October.

“We believe that the decision to end contact tracing and testing in schools was premature and we reiterate our call that public health should recommence testing, tracing and risk assessments in primary schools. We welcome the Deputy CMO’s calls to discourage congregation of children (in uncontrolled settings) within the community.

“We believe that school-support measures need to be augmented and that school-related activities should continue to be restricted between Halloween and Christmas.”

Concerns about the issue in secondary school are less pronounced. Micheál Martin is on the executive of the Teachers Union of Ireland. A teacher in Castleblayney College, Micheál represents members from Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath.

“By and large it is not an issue at the moment, but it is a work in progress,” Micheal explained. “I am not aware of any school at the moment who have had to send a class group home. There were some last year, particularly a couple of weeks before Christmas, either because staff members were close contacts or had contracted the virus themselves or a year group were sent home.”

Micheál says TUI head office are monitoring the issue closely: “There are weekly meetings between the Department, the ASTI and the INTO. They are watching the figures. We should be briefed on the situation by Thursday or Friday.”

The TUI executive member says vigilance is of vital importance: “When kids come back in September and are mixing, the sniffles start. Parents are very good and have their children tested. It really is a work in progress. I know within our own school pupils and parents have been given the message 'if there is any cause for concern, err on the side of caution and get tested'.”