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Covid-19 and schools: Minister denies 'ethos of secrecy' about informing teachers about positive cases

Norma Foley said decisions around informing close contacts should not be made by principals.

Image: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THE EDUCATION MINISTER has rejected accusations that schools are operating an “ethos of secrecy” around informing teachers of positive cases of Covid-19.

Norma Foley said it is appropriate that decisions related to informing close contacts are “strictly and only conducted by public health and no one else”.

She said it was unfair to ask school principals or members of the board of management to shoulder the burden of taking public health decisions.

Parents have previously raised concerns about schools not taking action on Covid-19 cases until they are contacted by the HSE.

The issue was raised at today’s Oireachtas Committee on Education by Sinn Fein TD Rose Conway-Walsh.

She raised concerns that principals are being told not to inform teachers when a child has tested positive for coronavirus, and that teachers are being instructed to switch off the Covid-19 tracing app while at school.

Conway-Walsh asked: “Are principals being told not to tell the teachers, including the teacher that’s teaching the child in the class?

“Are you concerned that is creating an ethos of secrecy within the school? Not only within the school, but within the community as well, where we have vacuums of information that are then being filled with untruths or not accurate information.”

The minister responded: “I would have to say at the outset, in terms of any adjudication of a case within a school, or a child or a member of staff being impacted by Covid-19, that adjudication is strictly and only conducted by public health and no one else.

“I think it is hugely important that any decisions around public health in the school sector or indeed in wider society are made by public health professionals.

And it is for that reason, and indeed with the support of the parties in education, that schools teams are public health-led and no adjudication as regards what should happen within a school environment is being placed on the shoulders of any school principal or any member of management of a school.

Conway-Walsh questioned if it was appropriate that principals were being told “to keep secret and not to even tell the teacher involved that the teacher will be a close contact as well of the student”.

“And were the teacher to come from a household where they might have high-risk family members within that, that they’re not told that they are a close contact of the student involved?”

Foley replied that “the expertise that rests with public health means that we accept the adjudication of public health”.

She said that at no stage “did any principal or any member of management within the school environment wish to have placed upon them the burden of having to make a public health adjudication”.

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“For that reason, public health are the ones that are making the adjudication and no one else within the school environment,” she added.

The minister said teachers are being informed about close contacts “as quickly and as soon as the adjudication has been completed by the public health within the school”.

Conway-Walsh urged her to reconsider the protocols, saying they left people in an “impossible situation”.

“I just want to say that the ethos of secrecy within the schools is putting the principals in an impossible situation, it’s putting parents in an impossible situation and teachers as well,” she said.

In response, the minister asked whether the deputy was suggesting that public health decisions should be made “by the school principal and by management within the school?

“At no stage did I think that was appropriate, and at no stage did management or did school principals ask to have that burden placed upon them,” she said. 

“It was always accepted that adjudication in terms of Covid-19 would have to be made by those who are expert in that field.”

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