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Extra public health resources in place to help schools as principals 'under pressure'

More than 100 Department of Education staff have been working with public health teams, Norma Foley said.

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EXTRA RESOURCES ARE being put into public health teams as school principals say they are under “considerable pressure” waiting for advice on dealing with Covid-19 cases.

Principals and unions reported lengthy delays receiving advice from a HSE Covid-19 helpline risk assessments and close contacts who need to be notified after a positive case is confirmed in a school. 

CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) Páiric Clerkin told The Journal 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.

“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. 

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s News at One, the HSE’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said there have been additional supports 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 added that more than 2,000 children under 14 have tested positive for Covid-19 in the last week. 

“We know now that asymptomatic children thankfully are very inefficient transmitters of this disease,” he said.

The [previous] outbreaks in school settings were not very frequent and for the most part resulted in small numbers of children.

He said for the moment the HSE is maintaining the policy for unvaccinated close contacts – including children – to stay at home and restrict their movements.  

The 14-day and five-day averages of case numbers are steadying, Dr Henry said, and the positivity rate for under 14s is about 7% at the moment.  

He added that the number of positive cases in this age cohort has risen recently.

The IPPN’s Páric Clerkin said the increased case numbers and difficulty accessing public health guidance has created a “pinch point” for principals and is putting them under “considerable pressure”. 

“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 reality is that principals are getting calls about cases late into the evening, at weekends and there needs to be support for them.

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

The HSE said yesterday that around 14,000 children are out of school and restricting their movements after being identified as close contacts. 

The Education Minister Norma Foley said this is “14,000 out of one million in the school body”. 

More than 100 Department of Education staff have been working in public health teams to help deal with the situation in schools. 

She said a school principal should not have to be in a position to make a public health judgement.

“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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“But I think we must be mindful too that we are still in a Covid situation and we must be particularly cautious.”

She told reporters this afternoon that her department continues to work with the HSE on the best public health advice. 

On speed of contact tracing in schools, she said there will always be pinch points, and other moments where there is a lull.

There are 110 of department staff supporting the HSE test & trace, she added, however she said they are advised that the case numbers in children rise when they are not in school due to the school environment being particularly controlled. 

Unlike schools in some other jurisdictions, she said Ireland has kept the majority of their mitigation measures in place.

She said they will continue to follow the public health advice, stating that if mask-wearing was recommended for primary school children they would implement that.

Social Democrats Education Spokesperson Gary Gannon said more adequate resources “should have been put in place to support schools during this time”. 

“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. 

With reporting by Christina Finn

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