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'No decision made' on extension to school mid-term break to curb virus

Government sources say the move is being considered as an option but no decision has been made.

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

NO DECISION HAS been made on closing schools for longer than initially planned at the mid-term break.

Despite reports that such a measure is on the cards in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19, government sources said no decision had been taken.

While the government has discussed the possibility of extending the October mid-term break, a well-placed source said it has been discussed “like many other elements” of how to deal with the increasing numbers.

“We have not decided on this at all,” they said, adding that as of now it is “all speculation”. 

All evidence would have to be looked at, the source said, adding it is only “an option” and there are “different views” as to whether schools should close for an extra week. 

Another senior source was quick to pour cold water on the reports – insisting that any decision like that would be dependent on the numbers at the end of the month.

It is understood focus is less so on primary school and more on students attending secondary school. It is also unclear if any such extension would mean an extra week off from school or if it would mean a week of distance learning for students.

It is understood that no contacts have been made with unions or schools to date, as the idea was only informally discussed.

Plan to keep schools open

A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills said today that no decision has been taken to extend schools’ midterm breaks.

“To date the evidence demonstrates that schools have reopened safely supported by significant investment to support all infection prevention and control measures recommended by the public health authorities,” the spokesperson said.

Keeping schools safely open for children and staff is a key priority at all levels of the government’s Plan for Living with COVID-19.

From Levels 1 to 4 inclusive, schools can remain open with protective measures, and at Level 5, recommendations will be based on the situation and evidence at the time, said the spokesperson.

“The Department of Health in recent days has advised the Department of Education and Skills that this issue has been afforded careful consideration by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

“In recommending that schools remain open at the present time, even in the current trajectory of the disease, the NPHET has considered the national experience of school reopening to date, including the epidemiological data and information gathered through case and outbreak management.

“The Irish experience to date supports the current international position that schools are low risk environments for COVID-19 and are not key drivers of transmission in the community,” said the spokesperson.

They added:

Many cases of COVID-19 linked to schools in Ireland have been found to have exposure to the disease outside of the school environment, e.g. in a household or social setting. 

Similarly, where testing of close contacts (of confirmed cases linked to the school), identifies additional cases of COVID-19, many of these are found to have had exposure to the disease outside of the school, said the spokesperson.

“There have been relatively few instances where transmission of COVID-19 within a school is strongly suspected by HSE Public Health.

“When children do develop COVID-19, the great majority experience no symptoms or very mild symptoms,” said the statement.

As of 6 October, 252 schools have had/are having some testing completed as a consequence of a public health risk assessment, said the spokesperson, who added that 5,890 students and teachers have been involved in mass testing.

From the 252 schools that had mass tests there have been an additional 112 detected cases over and above original cases. 

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The spokesperson went on to state that international evidence, and the Irish experience to date, suggests that adults (teachers/staff) are not at higher risk of Covid-19 in the school setting than in the wider community or household.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said the union has advocated for the resources and support needed to ensure we keep our schools open safely.

“It is imperative that when significant decisions are being made that the education stakeholders are consulted and given due notice of the outcomes so we can manage any potential disruption to our primary schools. 

“INTO is calling for an urgent review of the public health advice on schools to determine the necessary level of protocols, protections and precautionary measures needed when the level of infection is very high in a community and for clarity on the status of schools at Level 5.” 

He said there are alternatives to closure and to supporting learning remotely, such as partial opening where half of each class attends school on a rota basis.

“Having the EU’s largest classes leaves little room for distancing in primary schools and next Tuesday the government will have a chance to reduce our class sizes,” he added.

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