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Department had 'productive' meeting with school stakeholders over close contacts policy

Children who are close contacts in primary schools will not be required to restrict their movements if they are asymptomatic.

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Updated Sep 23rd 2021, 7:27 PM

THE DEPARTMENT OF Education has said its officials had a “productive” meeting with school stakeholders today in relation to the relaxation of rules for Covid-19 close contacts in primary schools and early learning centres.

The Department of Health issued new guidance yesterday that children who are close contacts in a primary school will no longer be required to restrict their movements if they do not have Covid-19 symptoms.

The change comes into effect from Monday 27 September for asymptomatic students, but those who display symptoms will still be required to restrict their movements.

A meeting took place with unions to discuss the relaxation of rules following about the potential impact on transmission in schools. 

This evening a department spokesperson told The Journal:

“A productive meeting took place today where stakeholders and the department worked through the implications for schools in managing the changes brought about by the new policy.

“Dr Kevin Kelleher, public health HSE, was in attendance to answer any questions that they had regarding public health arrangements and the new policy.”

General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) John Boyle earlier said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” by the decision.

Speaking to Newstalk this morning, Boyle said the government is removing a “safety net” from schools.

“Whatever supports were there for schools last year have been stripped out and this [ceasing automatic contact tracing] is a further measure that we felt should not even be entertained until after mid-term break,” Boyle said.

“Let’s be clear about what Dr Holohan and NPHET advised last Thursday. Their advice to government was that if there wasn’t a sign that there were additional infections in schools over the coming weeks up until next Monday, then they could proceed with this measure.”

But INTO is not confident the HSE data on cases among children are “reliable”, he said.

“Families in Ireland are going to hear this Friday and Saturday that their child is going to have to restrict their movements for 10 days, and then on Monday a child in the exact same situation is going to be told that they can go to school.”

However, Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said that the move was “really welcome” and made “weeks too late”.

“My office has been inundated with contact from principals who are totally exasperated at the lack of the support from the HSE. Thousands of children have been losing out on school days unnecessarily for weeks,” Ó Ríordáin said in a statement.

“Up to now, children have been sent home unnecessarily and this could have been avoided,” he said.

“Children have missed out on a whole range of important in class learnings and experiences that are vital to their full development. We welcome the belated action to change the process of contact tracing in schools, and we hope that the Minister will work constructively with unions and members of the opposition going forward.”

The new guidance means that testing of Covid-19 close contacts who are asymptomatic in childcare facilities and primary schools will no longer happen automatically, nor will under-12s be required to restrict their movements if they are asymptomatic, unless asked to by the local public health team.

Children in this age group will need to restrict their movements and be tested if they are a close contact in a household setting.

Children with Covid-19 symptoms should still self-isolate and not attend school or socialise until 48 hours after they are symptom free.

HSE Clinical Lead on Child Health Dr Abigial Collins has advised that if a child has any Covid-19 symptoms or “seems not quite right”, families should keep them at a home as a precaution and contact their GP.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland, Dr Collins said that “you’re not expected to make that decision about whether they should have a Covid-19 test, it’s about if you have a child that you’ve don’t think is well, you observe them and discuss with your primary care physician as per normal”.

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On whether antigen tests should be used in schools, Dr Collins said that “so far has not been determined to be necessary” and that testing children regularly is “not that pleasant” and “you have to consider whether that’s a reasonable thing to ask children to do”.

“I think it’s right and appropriate that we consider the needs of children who have been so harmed from exclusions and that we should not underestimate the challenges for families and the parents seeing regression of their children and lack of opportunities.”

Principal of St Etchen’s National School in Kinnegad Matt Melvin said that the school “could be sending home a child with a runny nose who just had a head cold and yet we are keeping a child in school who is a close contact”.

- With reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

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Lauren Boland

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