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Q&A: The latest Covid-19 protocols for secondary schools as students return to classes

Students across the country have been returning to school this week.

Image: Leah Farrell

BELIEVE IT OR not, it’s time for children and teenagers to return to school after the summer break. 

Some schools have begun welcoming students back this week, with all schools expected to open by next week. 

Covid-19 safety measures for both primary and secondary schools remain the same, for the most part, this year.

However, with many teenagers now fully vaccinated or in the the process of being vaccinated, let’s take a look at what second level settings will be like this year, and whether rules such as social distancing and self-isolation remain the same. 

Face coverings and social distancing

As was the case last year, all secondary students will be required to wear face coverings in classrooms. 

Face coverings do not have to be worn by those with exempted medical conditions. 

Physical distancing of two metres, where possible, or at least one metre should be maintained between desks or between individual staff or students. 

Good handwashing and hygiene practice is also still important for all students and it’s important that students’ hands are washed regularly. 

What are the symptoms to look out for?

In July, the Department of Health advised that the public should be looking for different symptoms of Covid-19 as the Delta variant began to sweep across the country.

The symptoms associated with the Delta variant are different to those of Alpha and previous variants, NPHET said, with sore throat, runny nose and headaches considered to be potential indicators of the illness, rather than a cough and a fever which were more closely indicated with earlier variants.

When do students need to self-isolate?

The rules are somewhat different this school year with regards to self-isolation for those who are fully vaccinated.

Students who are fully vaccinated do not need to restrict their movements or get a test if they are a close contact of Covid-19, as long as they don’t have any symptoms of the virus. 

Those who are not fully vaccinated must get tested for Covid-19 and restrict their movements for 14 days. They will be permitted to stop restricting their movements if they test negative for Covid-19 10 days after they were last in contact with the person who tested positive and they do not have any symptoms of the virus. 

The HSE will be in touch with any student who is deemed to be a close contact. 

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Abigail Collins, a Consultant in Public Health Medicine, advised that any students who feel like they have symptoms of Covid-19 should isolate, contact their GP and get tested for Covid-19. 

“What we would say in public health is take a precautionary approach, where in the past you might have said ‘I’m sure I’m grand, I’ll get through the day’, or take a couple of paracetamol,” Dr Collins said. 

“If you’re not feeling quite right, be precautionary, stay at home and observe for 48 hours and see what symptoms develop,” she said. 

How many students are vaccinated?

As of 24 August, over 88,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered to those in the 12-15 age group. Over 144,000 people aged 12-15 have now registered for the vaccine. 

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Dr Collins said that it’s important for students who are fully vaccinated continue to carry on with mitigation measures and continue to social distance and wear face coverings. 

“When they’re in the yard … if they’re outside, outside is better obviously, they don’t have to wear their face coverings all the time outside,” Dr Collins said.

“But if you’re at close distance, if you’re with you’re best friend having a close up chat you should have your face covering on,” she said. 

How many school outbreaks have there been so far?

The HSE earlier this week confirmed it recorded 832 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools, both primary and secondary, since they reopened in August 2020.

A new HSE review of data from the academic year outlines that 3,655 cases were linked to outbreaks in schools.

Looking at outbreaks record up until the cyberattack on the HSE in May, they ranged in size from zero to 79 linked cases. 92% of the outbreaks involved fewer than ten linked cases and 34% saw only two linked cases.

During the year, 18 schools were asked to exclude all staff and students and undertake testing.

Coming into the summer, 39 cases were identified among Leaving Cert students between the end of classes and the end of exams.

The cases led to 21 students missing some of their exams while they were isolating.

Additionally, 41 Leaving Cert students were closed contacts, including 14 were missed some exams as they were required to restrict their movements.

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