Politics

Close contact rules for pupils set to be relaxed from Monday

Unvaccinated children who are close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases will be allowed to remain in school without self-isolating from Monday next, according to Government sources, as long as they are not showing symptoms.

The move means thousands of children who have been forced to isolate at home will be able to return to class.

However, it is likely to spark concern among school staff unions who say it is too early to ease test and tracing protocols.

The increased number of cases among primary school students since schools reopened has been resulting in about 1,200 children being forced to restrict their movements every day.

However, latest data gathered by public health authorities indicates that Covid-19 cases in schools have stabilised over the past 10 days or so, according to well-placed sources.

While there was a significant increase in positive cases among children of primary school age in the first two weeks of the school year, latest public health data indicates that most of this was down to a four-fold expansion in testing which picked up additional cases.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is understood to have advised Government that it believes it is now safe to relax rules on close contacts in schools given this stabilisation in cases.

An official announcement on easing the rules is expected later this week, according to sources.

Unions representing teachers and special needs assistants, however, are nervous about such a move.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said last week that any proposed changes should be reviewed closer to the mid-term break in October and introduced thereafter.

“Nphet have regularly stated that a change in approach to contact tracing is not without risks, including potentially missing a resurgence until people become wholly symptomatic,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle, last Friday.

Fórsa, which represents about 14,000 school staff including special needs assistants (SNAs), school secretaries and caretakers, has also it is too early to relax test and tracing protocols in schools.

The union said new advice should not be implemented until there is a consistent pattern of reduced infections in schools and the wider community.

Fórsa’s head of education Andy Pike said last week said the system needed to exercise caution prior to and during any relaxation of the existing safety measures.”

Symptoms

There have claims, meanwhile, that parents and schools are confused over “contradictory” Covid-19 advice on whether to keep children with runny noses out of school.

While HSE advice says it is “usually ok” to send a child to school if they have a runny nose or a sneeze, the Department of Education’s guidance lists a runny nose or sore throat as “uncommon” symptoms of Covid-19.

Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireTD said the divergence was confusing parents and schools, who were trying to keep schools safe and minimise disruption.

Minister for Education Norma Foley told the Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday evening that her department’s advice was based on ongoing engagement with public health authorities.

“The advice from public health is that children should stay at home if they are unwell,” she said.

“It is a precautionary measure. There is the absolute understanding that parents know their own children best. If children are feeling unwell, then they should be kept at home.”

Ms Foley said this advice had been communicated to schools and parents in different languages and across social media, along with videos from public health officials.

“There is no confusion in relation to the information communicated directly to parents and directly to school leaders. It is the information which comes from the Department of Education, which in turn has come from the experts in public health who are dealing with schools.”

Mr Ó Laoghaire, however, said there remained an “incoherence” in the advice provided by different sources.

“It needs to be fixed. It’s unfair on principals, it’s unfair on schools and particular unfair on parents if they can find two different Government sources telling them two different things,” he said.

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