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covid surge

HSE: Schools can inform of positive Covid cases if they receive parental consent

The HSE said it only recommended against this in cases where parental consent wasn’t sought or it wasn’t GDPR compliant.

THE HSE HAS said that schools can share information of when there is a positive Covid-19 case in a class, if they have the parents’ consent and are GDPR compliant. 

A teachers’ union said this advice was “inconsistent” with previous advice given by the Department of Education after the decision was taken to end contact tracing in school settings in September. 

There has been growing criticism of the lack of contact tracing in schools, with teachers, principals and TDs saying that schools have been “left in the dark” about how Covid-19 is spreading, and expressing concern that this is disrupting children’s education.

The current surge in Covid-19 cases has been exacerbated by a shortage in substitute teachers, meaning when a teacher self-isolates with symptoms or a positive Covid-19 test, it can be difficult to find a temporary replacement.

In September, contact tracing in school settings ended in order to prevent students who were close contacts of confirmed cases from missing days in school unnecessarily. 

The former head of test and trace Niamh O’Beirne explained this decision at the time, saying that there was just a 5% positivity rate among children who were close contacts of a confirmed Covid-19 case in a school setting, compared to a 25% positivity among children who are close contacts of cases in household settings.

Though teachers and opposition TDs agree that something had to change about how contact tracing operated then, they argue it shouldn’t have been completely removed.

A surge in Covid-19 cases

Of the 3,136 outbreaks that have been reported since 27 June 2021, when the fourth wave of Covid-19 began, 321, or 10% have been documented in school settings.

In a meeting last month, NPHET noted that from 7–13 October, the age group with the largest number of referrals was the 4-12-year-old age group, and that the detected rate for the 4- to 12-year-old age group is 9.4%.

In a letter to the editor published in the Sunday Independent this week, a principal wrote that due the high rate of Covid-19 cases confirmed in their school, they have decided to text all parents in a class where there has been a PCR-confirmed case.

“I simply say: ‘We have been notified of a case of Covid-19 in your child’s class. Please be vigilant for symptoms in your child.’

“Of course I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s against Department advice – but look, what’s the worst that can happen?”

Principals ‘free’ to share info if compliant

In response to these concerns put to the HSE by The Journal, a spokesperson said:

“Since the updated contact tracing guidelines were implemented on September 27th, the HSE no longer routinely shares the details cases of Covid-19 identified who have attended primary schools whilst infectious, as no further bespoke public health actions are routinely required.”

This refers to the fact that close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases do not need to restrict their movements if they have no symptoms, and are fully vaccinated (if eligible).

The spokesperson said: “The schools are still required to undertake the two most important actions to prevent spread of Covid-19 (and other respiratory viruses) by ensuring no-one with new acute symptoms attend class, and that all recommended infection prevention and control measures are in place to prevent spread from any asymptomatic cases who might be within the school.

However, if schools are informed by parents of a case of Covid-19, and those are parent are happy for this information to be shared, then principals are free to do that if they are satisfied it is in compliance with GDPR.
The HSE guarded only against sharing of information when specific parental consent has not been sought or all GDPR measures attended to, as any information regarding Covid-19 is no longer being requested to be shared routinely under the protection of public health.

‘Inconsistent’ with previous advice

A spokesperson for the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), which represents over 40,000 primary school teachers across the country, said that this advice was “inconsistent” with the original guidance provided to schools by the Department of Education when contact tracing in school settings was removed in September.

“Mixed messages during a pandemic are not helpful to a school community battling an ever-deteriorating public health landscape,” they said.

In that guidance seen by The Journal, the advice says in an FAQ section that there is “no clinical need for information to be shared with contacts of cases, therefore Public Health do not recommend that you tell parents of other children that there has been a case of Covid-19 within your class / facility / group”.

Though the advice warns of the information being shared on WhatsApp groups, and mentions GDPR requirements, it does not state that information can be shared if parental consent is received and the manner in which it is done is GDPR compliant.

Symptoms of Covid-19

The INTO spokesperson also added that schools “do not have the authority to unilaterally ensure symptomatic children are kept out of the classroom”.

“Such a policy would be at variance with the government’s own policy of personal responsibility.

 The abject failure of the government to run a comprehensive public awareness campaign on the key symptoms of Covid-19 among school children, has utterly failed to inform many parents of both their obligations and the specific symptoms to be aware of.

The Government and NPHET have been repeatedly emphasising that parents should keep their children at home if they have symptoms of Covid-19.

There has been some confusion around what the symptoms of Covid-19 are among children; in September questions were raised about whether a child should be kept home from school if they have a runny nose. 

The HSE website states that the most common symptoms of Covid-19 among children are a high fever, a dry cough, and fatigue. Less common symptoms include a loss of taste or smell, a blocked nose, or a sore throat.

At a meeting of NPHET on Monday 18 October, the minutes note that the “recent decision to stop automatic contact tracing of children in schools” was discussed.

“Members queried whether analyses had been undertaken on possible increases in household clusters of infection and if there was any link with children attending school.

“The HPSC outlined that nationally, there had recently been two outbreaks in schools with significant case numbers reported in each case.

“Generally, outbreaks in schools have not been observed to be associated with resultant significant increases in family/household transmission.”

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