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Teachers' union says 'significant number' of school staff contracted Covid in recent weeks

A survey found 605 staff across 877 schools tested positive for the virus recently.

Image: Shutterstock

Updated Nov 22nd 2021, 9:20 AM

THE IRISH NATIONAL Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has said a significant number of school staff contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks.

A recent survey conducted by the union found 605 staff across 877 schools were reported to have tested positive for the virus.

The survey, which relates from the period from 1 November to 16 November, found that of a total of 231,912 pupils in the responding schools, 3,726 pupils were reported as testing positive for Covid-19.

In the schools responding to the survey, 3.62% of staff were reported as testing positive for Covid-19 during this period.

11,778 substitutable days were reported during the survey period, of which 31.36% were not covered.

Of those days where a substitute was available, 48.34% (5,693 days) were filled by a registered primary teacher, 10.66% (1,255 days) were filled by a registered teacher who is not a primary teacher and 7.34 % (865 days) were filled by a person who is not registered with the Teaching Council.

INTO General Secretary John Boyle said the snapshot survey shines a light on a primary education system that is “creaking at the seams”.

“Soaring transmission levels are an indictment of the premature removal of testing and contact tracing from our primary schools, and of the frustrating failure to move quickly to deploy antigen testing,” he said.

“The cessation of public health risk assessments following primary school outbreaks, and the resulting unavailability of weekly reports detailing infection levels from 27 September, has concealed the escalation of positive case numbers among pupils and staff in primary schools.

It simply cannot be a coincidence that the number of 5–12-year-old children contracting the virus has trebled since crucial public health supports were removed from the primary sector less than two months ago, abandoning teachers and principals to protect themselves and their unmasked, unvaccinated pupils from the impact of the highest wave of infection in their schools since the pandemic began.

He said the union’s view is that a recent statement from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) that sharing a classroom can be considered a high-risk exposure “must be taken seriously by the Irish government”.

“The government must do everything in its power to minimise the risk of exposure in every primary school classroom,” he said.

The union is calling for an immediate review of the Covid-19 response plans for primary and special schools to address the upsurge in infection levels.

“The fast-tracking of the booster vaccine programme and the provision of vaccines for children aged under 12 will be essential to support the primary education system in the coming months,” Boyle said.

He also called for the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) to publish another review of the minimum age for the wearing of face masks. 

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“It is entirely appropriate that the union representing workers who teach the largest cohort of unvaccinated and un-masked individuals in over-crowded and often poorly ventilated settings be consulted by HIQA on the issue,” he said.

“The provision of more air quality monitors and air filtration systems to primary and special schools would greatly assist our schools.”

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland this morning, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said that when schools returned in September, “the level of testing in that age group went very, very high with a huge increase in the number of people having PCR tests in the five to 12-year age group, and what actually happened was that test positivity fell significantly”.

“Even though there was a rise in the reported number of cases, what that actually was was an increase in what we call the case ascertainment. In other words, it was more likely that a case would be found,” the CMO said.

“It wasn’t a true increase in the underlying instance of the disease,” he said.

It reinforced other data that we have, and international experiences, that in general when schools are following all the basic public health measures that our school system has done really, really well to the credit of teachers unions, teachers, principals, sports management, parents, and obviously the children themselves, it helps to make those in relative terms low-risk situations compared to other circumstances like households.

He said children are “for the most part picking this infection up in the community and at home rather than necessarily transmitting it in a school”.

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