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Explainer: How schools are handling Covid-19 pressure not long after reopening

Schools reopened their doors to pupils over the last couple of weeks – how have they been dealing with Covid cases?
Sep 11th 2021, 7:00 AM 16,380 9

PRIMARY AND SECONDARY schools reopened their doors to students over the last couple of weeks after the summer holidays.

A lot has changed since they finished up – namely the dominance of the more transmissible Delta variant and soaring vaccinating rates. 

As of Friday, 90% of adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but there are still upwards of 1,000 people testing positive for Covid each day.

The incidence rate of the disease among young people has been falling in recent days.

Thousands of under 18s have had to restrict their movements since schools reopened after they became close contacts of a confirmed case.

Principals have reported difficulties accessing risk assessments and advice from the HSE on Covid-19 cases and identifying close contacts. 

CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) Páiric Clerkin told The Journal that principals were under “considerable pressure” in handling the cases that crop up. 

Case numbers 

Data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) shows that 7,083 people aged 0-18 tested positive for Covid-19 between 26 August and 8 September.

This is about one-third of all cases confirmed during this time. 4,570 cases were among those aged 12 and under. 

The age group with the highest number of cases during this 14-day period was 5-12. 

However, HSE public health specialist Dr Abbey Collins said the highest incidence rates of Covid-19 in children took place during school holidays.

Prior to the summer break this year, there were on average 1,000 cases per week among those aged 0-18, but this figure rose to between 3,500 and 4,000 a week when children were out of school.

Dr Collins said: “We saw the largest number of children get Covid over January… over July and August, when the children haven’t been in school.

She said that outside of schools, children often only get tested for the virus if a parent or family member has tested positive.

In schools, however, proactive testing and tracing is done where any positive case arises.

On Wednesday, the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said the incidence rate of Covid in young people is “falling significantly”.

“We are seeing early encouraging signs that the rate of infection plateauing in children of school going age,” Dr Holohan said in a statement. 

Chair of NPHET’s epidemiolocal modelling advisory group Professor Philip Nolan also said there is “considerable evidence” that with mitigation measures in place schools are “not major sites of transmission”. 

Professor Nolan said that the Delta variant is more transmissible, but the methods of transmission remain the same. 

“It is reasonable to assume that mitigation measures that were effective against Alpha will also be effective against Delta, though they need to be strictly observed, and the situation monitored,” he said on Twitter.

He added that school openings and closures have had a “minimal effect on incidence in the population as a whole”. 

Students restricting their movements 

Unvaccinated people who are determined to be close contacts of a person with Covid-19 are required to restrict their movements and be tested for Covid-19. 

A spokesperson for the HSE said on Tuesday that approximately 12,000 students were restricting their movements after being deemed a close contact.

This estimate increased in the days following, but has since been rowed back until official figures are confirmed. 

“Prior to schools returning there were approximately 4,000 cases per week in 0-18-year-olds, many of these children will now have also been in an educational facility and hence a high impact on the schools testing processes,” a HSE spokesperson said during the week.

However, a spokesperson said yesterday that “meaningful data” has not yet been finalised so more details on this will be released next week. 

The HSE’s Chief Clinical Officer said this week that evidence shows asymptomatic children are “very inefficient transmitters” of Covid-19. 

Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE national lead for testing and tracing, said recently that schools will be “busy from a testing perspective” throughout September. 

“It is expected that there will be a degree of transmission in schools but the advice from public health has remained as before and all the measures are in place within the schools,” she said. 

No need to restrict movements

Students who are fully vaccinated do not have to restrict their movements if they are close contacts, but vaccines are still only available for people aged 12 and older so most primary school students are not currently eligible for vaccination.

Those who are not fully vaccinated must get tested for Covid-19 and restrict their movements for 10 days if they become a close contact.

They will be permitted to stop restricting their movements if they test negative for Covid-19 10 days after they were last in contact with the person who tested positive and they do not have any symptoms of the virus. 

The HSE said it will contact any student deemed to be a close contact, but principals this week flagged days-long delays to receive risk assessments and advice from public health teams.  

CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) Páiric Clerkin told The Journal on Wednesday that there is a “very clear process in place for schools to follow” after they have been notified of a positive case among a student or staff member.

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“When that process is working well, it’s usually completed within a matter of hours. But pressures are emerging because the response times – they’re not being measured in hours, but in days,” he said. 

Clerkin said the increased case numbers and difficulty accessing public health guidance created a “pinch point” for principals and put them under “considerable pressure”. 

“They are making judgement calls without public health advice,” he said. “We hope it can be rectified as soon as possible.

“It’s still early into the reopening of schools and it’s certainly pressurised at the moment and probably more pressurised than the system was last year.”

The Education Minister said later that a school principal should not have to be in a position to make a public health judgement.

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s News at One, the HSE’s Dr Colm Henry said additional supports have been put in place in an effort to more quickly carry out risk assessments.

“We’ve put in extra resources to those public health departments as of today to try and ensure that we can catch up with any backlog that exists and support the principals,” Dr Henry said. 

He said the HSE is maintaining the policy for unvaccinated people, including students, to restrict their movements if they are close contacts. 

Vaccinated people do not have to restrict their movements unless they show symptoms when – like anyone else – they should self-isolate, contact a GP and get referred for a PCR test if advised to do so. 

Criticism

Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin this week described the managing of the reopening of schools as “shambolic”. 

“Neither the Department nor the HSE have engaged with schools who are left in the position of attempting to awkwardly manage contact tracing and avoid outbreaks locally,” the TD said. 

“My office has been inundated with contact from Principals and others in school communities up and down the country who are dealing with little else other than Covid.”

He said schools should have been better equipped with ventilation systems and smaller class sizes. 

Social Democrats education spokesperson Gary Gannon also said more adequate resources should have been in place to support schools. 

“Instead, principals have been abandoned by the HSE and the Department of Education – with many forced to perform contact-tracing themselves as calls to the dedicated helpline go unanswered,” Gannon said in a statement.

Education Minister Norma Foley said that her department continues to work with the HSE on the best public health advice. 

 “I absolutely do understand how any child being out of school, or any young person being out of school, for any length of time absolutely discommodes the children and young people themselves, but equally so their families so I am very mindful of that,” Foley told RTÉ radio. 

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