Minister for Education Norma Foley has said that she will not be pursuing derogation measures for teachers who are close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases so they can return to work sooner.
Ms Foley told both RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland and Newstalk Breakfast that mitigation measures in schools had been made by medical experts and the view of the public-health experts was that the current measures “are sufficient”.
Her comments came shortly after the general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) called on the Government to “look again” at reintroducing contact tracing in primary schools, as schools brace themselves for Covid outbreaks and staff shortages in the coming weeks.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said it was “inevitable” children would pick up the infection from household contacts over the coming days and weeks which, in turn, would lead to more cases in schools.
However, he said latest research indicated that schools were a lower-risk environment for the transmission of the virus and the majority of children who are infected experience a mild form of the disease.
“I am beseeching the Government,” John Boyle said on Wednesday. “[Contact tracing] worked well while we had it . . . That’s what we need if we want gold-standard teaching.”
Ms Foley said the situation in schools would remain under review and public health had agreed to look at the issue of medical-grade masks for teachers and contact tracing. “If public health come back and say that they should be involved in contact tracing in schools then we will do that.”
Public-health officials gave the education sector the green light to reopen on Thursday after it met with Ms Foley and education partners on Tuesday against a backdrop of record Covid-19 numbers driven by the Omicron variant.
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The Minister said on Wednesday that she wanted to see “a hierarchy of priority” of children to remain in school including pupils with special needs, younger children for whom remote learning would be difficult and exam students.
The coming days and weeks “will not be without their challenges”, she said, but the pandemic has shown that children are best served by in-person learning.
The Department of Education adopted a “child-centred approach”, she said, and would work “hand in hand” with schools, providing a helpline seven days a week, with extra support from the Inspectorate “to best determine how to go forward for the school year”.
Ms Foley denied that school principals were being asked to carry out contact tracing. They had to text or call the parents of any children in a pod if one was identified as being positive and after that it was up to the parents, she said. “I trust parents.”
Operating in a pandemic, it was a remarkable achievement that schools would reopen, and this was possible because of the goodwill and generosity of school communities, she added.
INTO ‘more upbeat’
Mr Boyle said he is “more upbeat” about the return to school following the meeting with Ms Foley and public health on Tuesday.
Prior to Christmas, at a “very terse” meeting on December 22nd, “public health actually apologised for their failures and from then on there has been work done over Christmas to be fair”, he said.
“Public health are coming back to help primary, to support principals and teachers who were really beleaguered before Christmas. There will be people in each HSE area basically designated to help primary principals.
“The Inspectorate are coming back on board to a greater degree and even though parents will be absolutely thrilled that schools are reopening tomorrow there is a big caution around all of this. We’re probably going to have 7,000 to 8,000 members missing.”
During the first school term, when there was no contact tracing in primary schools, there had been no data on outbreaks and infections coming in, he added. At the meeting with public health on Tuesday, “a huge amount of data” had been presented that showed children “are not driving this pandemic”.
There was a lot more to be done, he added. The message from schools was that this was going to be a very difficult term and there would be situations where classes would have to be from home.
“Some juggling” would be required, but the priority was to ensure children “who don’t thrive” when there is no school and those with special needs would attend school.
If children had to go home, it would be senior children, he said. Teachers could have to move from their own class to another, but the aim was to keep schools open.