Public health officials will review the possible reintroduction of coronavirus contact tracing in primary schools, the Minister for Education has said.
Norma Foley's comments came as the general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said he was “beseeching” the Government to reintroduce contact tracing amid record-breaking infection rates.
“I am beseeching the Government,” John Boyle told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. “It worked well while we had it. That’s my big ask. That’s what we need if we want gold standard teaching.”
Mr Boyle also said up to 8,000 teachers are expected to be absent when schools reopen on Thursday and he was “deeply concerned about finding enough teachers to keep the system running.”
“There isn’t a hope we will have enough replacement teachers and that is me being honest and frank with you,” he said.
However, Ms Foley ruled out derogation - an exemption from or relaxation of a rule - for school staff who were close contacts and fully vaccinated on Wednesday morning, amid the concerns over staffing.
'Not without challenges'
Speaking on both RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland and Newstalk Breakfast, the Minister said the reopening of schools will "not be without challenges".
One of the lessons learned during the pandemic was that children were best served by in-person learning in schools, she said.
She wanted to see “a hierarchy of priority” of children to remain in school, which would include pupils with special needs, younger children for whom remote learning was difficult, and exam students.
Ms Foley said the view of public health experts was that the current mitigation measures in schools “are sufficient”. The situation would remain under review and public health had agreed to “look at” the issue of medical grade masks and contact tracing.
“Everything is being kept under review. If public health come back and say that they should be involved in contact tracing in schools then we will do that,” she said.
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. “I trust parents,” she said.
The Minister said there is a potential to have 2,500 student teachers be made available. A helpline for principals, that is to operate seven days a week, is going live on Wednesday morning.
The INTO's Mr Boyle earlier said that he was “more upbeat” about the return to school on Thursday following meetings with public health authorities.
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,” he said.
“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.”
Mr Boyle said there had been no data coming without contact tracing in primary schools for the first term of this academic year. 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 conducted from home.
Keeping schools open
“Some juggling” would be required, Mr Boyle said, but the priority was to ensure children “who don’t thrive” when there was no school and those with special needs would be able to attend school.
If children had to go home it would be senior children. Teachers could have to move from their own class to another, but the aim was to keep schools open, he said.
It comes after chief medical officer Tony Holohan warned it is “inevitable” that children will become infected after announcing some 21,302 new cases of Covid-19 last night.
The Department of Education confirmed the reopening of schools on Tuesday on the advice of public health officials, who said there is no “public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools”.
Some teachers’ unions had called for the Government to re-think its approach to the return of schools, given the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, with delayed and staggered reopenings suggested.
With the majority of primary school children remaining unvaccinated, parents of children with a health condition putting them at high risk from Covid-19 have expressed frustration as they face another return to school without the protection of a vaccine.