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INTO says there's anxiety among teachers nationwide amid fears health precautions are 'inadequate'

The union wants a number of actions taken immediately to help safeguard schools.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

THE SITUATION WITH testing and contact tracing for teachers has become “simply untenable”, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has said.

In a statement today, the union has sought urgent clarity on a number of matters as the country appears set to be moved to tougher restrictions in the coming days. 

The government has indicated it still intends to keep schools open under the kind of Level 4+ restrictions that are expected.

However, the INTO said today that in recent weeks it has become “increasingly concerned that public health precautions for teachers are inadequate”. 

The union said many primary teachers have underlying health conditions or have family members whose health is at risk from Covid-19. 

“The threat associated with rising levels of infection in communities is leading to apprehension and anxiety among school staff nationwide, especially in counties where level 4 restrictions already apply,” it said.

The INTO said that the desire to keep schools open must be met with a “firm commitment to keep schools safe”, and asked for a public health review to be immediately convened to explore what the new measures mean for schools.

It also called for five measures to be put in place immediately.

This includes the publication of the exact number of school staff who have tested positive since September, with breakdowns by school type, staff member role etc.

The union also wants a clear explanation on the difference between a close contact and a casual contact in a school setting, along with an urgent review of the policy on the wearing of face coverings.

It also calls for “additional suite of protective measures for primary and special schools in areas where level 4 of the government’s framework applies including the immediate banning of extra-curricular activities, the restriction of parents/guardians congregating at school grounds to a maximum of 15 mask-wearing adults at any given time, a strict no visitors policy for all schools and the provision of funding to ensure that teachers and pupils can engage with remote learning”.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said the union has engaged constructively with government throughout the process of re-opening schools, but that clear action was needed now given the deteriorating situation in the country. 

“Despite our best efforts, government has failed to deliver a fit for purpose, fast-tracked, sector-specific testing and tracing system in the seven weeks since schools reopened,” Boyle said.

“This has resulted in principal teachers regularly having to initiate out of hours contact with families and staff members when they have been notified of positive tests.

This situation is simply untenable. If our primary and special schools are to fully reopen after mid-term break and operate safely next month, government must ensure that the necessary protective measures and protocols are put in place within the next fortnight.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a Department of Education spokesperson said that evidence to date suggests schools have re-opened safely since the end of August.

The spokesperson said: “As of 15 October, latest data from public health shows that 8164 students and teachers have been involved in mass testing.   This has resulted in the detection of 136 additional cases.  This equates to a positive detection rate of 1.7 per cent of additional detected cases. 

“In other words, where mass testing has been carried out of close contacts in the school setting of confirmed cases, this has only resulted in a small number of additional confirmed cases, not all of which are transmitted within the school setting.  This rate is remaining very low despite the comparable positive detection rate in the community continuing to rise over 6%.”

The spokesperson said there has been no significant change in the proportion of total weekly Covid-19 cases among school-aged children before August and since the re-opening of schools. 

The department has worked with public health to ensure “testing is prioritised for those close contacts within the school community of confirmed Covid-19 cases”.

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“Covid 19 test appointments are issued as a priority for school based close contacts through a specific schools referral process within the HSE,” the spokesperson said. “At the point of testing, swabs for the school group are sent to the laboratory as a ‘red flagged’ batch to be processed as a priority on delivery to the laboratory.”

The spokesperson added that a number of other supports are available to schools, and said a recent round of visits from inspectors to schools has found them to be “generally positive” in terms of how they’re implementing Covid-19 response plans. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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