The Government is determined to reopen schools in September amid confidence the country can “withstand” a Covid-19 wave driven by the Delta variant without having to reintroduce serious restrictions.
Minister for Education Norma Foley said she has every confidence about a full reopening of schools in late August-early September.
Ms Foley told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that there was ongoing engagement between her department and public health officials on the matter.
Strong mitigation measures would be in place in schools to ensure that they would continue to be controlled environments, she added. Covid-19 infection rates among children were at their highest when children were not at school and public health experts had pointed out “on a consistent basis to schools being a very significantly controlled environment.”
The safe operation of the Leaving Certificate exams and enhanced summer camps indicated that the safe operation of education could be maintained, she said. A framework would put in place to allow schools to “draw down” CO2 monitors and the Minister was confident there would be enough monitors for all schools by the start of the new school year.
When asked about vaccines for children, Ms Foley replied that the “expertise” lay with the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), from which her department would take guidance.
“I have received confirmation that the 16 to 18-year-old cohort should be in a position for online registration in the coming days, and I have been advised that the 15-year-olds cohort, are still being considered by Niac and there has been no definitive timeline given.”
On Sunday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said falling case numbers in Scotland, the Netherlands and England “give us confidence that we can withstand the Delta wave without having to reimpose restrictions”.
As The Irish Times reports, he said: “This is because of the protection afforded to us by vaccines.”
Sources within Government are adamant that second-level education will resume in the autumn, despite concerns among public-health officials that the wave could grow following the reopening of indoor dining today, before peaking in September.
“Schools will reopen,” a Coalition source said.
A further 1,126 Covid-19 cases were reported yesterday, with 123 people hospitalised with the disease, including 22 in intensive care.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said almost 70 per cent of adults have now been fully vaccinated, with 83 per cent partially vaccinated. He warned, however, of rising numbers in hospital with the disease and asked people to embrace the reopening of hospitality safely.
Ministers also urged caution in the weeks ahead, with Mr Varadkar saying: “We cannot be complacent. This virus has surprised us many times.”
Hospital #COVID19 numbers are rising at 123, 21 in ICU. Positively, now over 5.5M vaccines administered with 83% of adults now partially vaccinated & over 68% fully. As hospitality, society & the economy opens up further, let's all embrace it safely and make it work. @HSELive
— Paul Reid (@paulreiddublin) July 25, 2021
Representatives of two teachers unions have also said their members will return to work in schools if it is in accordance with public health advice.
Diarmuid de Paor, deputy general secretary of the ASTI told RTÉ News at One that while there were worrying trends in relation to new variants, if the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advised that it was safe to do so then his members “will be going back to school.”
The ASTI would continue to monitor the situation carefully, he added. “We will follow the advice.”
Martin Marjoram, president of the TUI, said they too would follow public health advice. It had been reassuring that schools were considered safe, but there were some concerns that would be raised, he said.
Mr de Paor said the issue of vaccinating children was of concern to teachers, but that they could not take the advice of “just one doctor”, they would continue to listen to public health advice and the rollout of the vaccination programme to 16-18-year-olds represented a “significant cohort of our students.”
However, he expressed concern about pregnant teachers who might not have been vaccinated for medical reasons, allowances would have to be made for them.
His association had always wanted schools to open, but only if it was safe to do so. “We’ve always been responsible.”
Mr Marjoram added that the TUI welcomed the Minister’s announcement about the provision of C02 monitors for all schools. Any measure that made schools safe was to be welcomed, he said.
Controlling the disease
The Tánaiste added that vaccines, testing and tracing, and interventions such as restrictions on indoor gatherings, mask wearing and respiratory hygiene would be key to controlling the disease.
“There’s a few months to go before we can safely say the pandemic is behind us,” he added.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly asked that people “use the same common sense they have right through this pandemic” when indoor hospitality resumes.
There were warnings yesterday that one-in-four hospitality businesses would not be ready to reopen.
Final guidelines and regulations governing the reopening were expected to be signed last night.
Restaurants’ Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins said there should be enhanced financial supports for the sector once payments linked to their closure were wound down.