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Schools: Phased reopening begins as Education Minister says antigen testing has not yet been recommended

Sixth years and young primary school students are among those who returned to school today.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Updated Mar 1st 2021, 1:53 PM

THE EDUCATION MINISTER has said antigen testing has not yet been recommended in schools as facilities reopened today for students in specific year groups.

Half of primary school students – junior infants, senior infants, first class and second class – and sixth years returned to school today for the first time since before Christmas.

Schools for children with special needs also reopened at full capacity.

Minister Norma Foley told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne: “There is an expert group headed up by Professor Mark Ferguson doing a particular study on the use of antigen testing, not just in education settings, but indeed in all settings.

“At this point, such testing has not been recommended by public health.” 

The minister said this group is due to make its findings known in mid-March. She said if the advice on antigen testing changes, the government will meet this change. 

In terms of safety measures, Foley said that “all of the mitigation in place in schools has been reviewed in the last while by public health”.

“All of the measures that need to be put in place are in place.” 

The minister said there will always be a certain amount of “anxiousness” among people about schools reopening. 

She said she has “every confidence that the school community will be doing all that is necessary” to keep schools safe. 

Around 320,000 students made the physical return to school buildings today.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said the reopening of schools will need to be handled with careful measures to protect health and safety.

General Secretary Michael Gillespie said that there is some anxiety among school communities, particularly around the spread of new Covid-19 strains.

“At a national level, the situation must be kept under constant and forensic review, while adherence to the measures that protect the health and safety of students, staff and their families must be the key priority in every school,” Gillespie said.

“It is essential that social distancing measures be adhered to, and the additional space in school premises as a result of the phased return allows the opportunity to further enhance this critical measure,” he said.

“Tracking and tracing measures must be robust and fit for purpose, while any member of the school community – staff or student – who has symptoms of Covid-19 or is a close contact of a confirmed case must stay at home. We have already stated that we will not tolerate breaches of key safety measures in workplaces.”    

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Teachers who are in a high-risk category, aged over 60, or who are pregnant are continuing to work remotely.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn has asked parents to avoid gathering at the school gates and not to organise play dates.

In an open letter to parents, Dr Glynn wrote that “NPHET’s most significant concern is that it will be taken as a signal by parents and wider society that other forms of household mixing, and mobility are now acceptable”.

“We cannot afford for this to happen at this time,” he said, on the basis that Covid-19 is transmission is still high.

“Please avoid congregating at school gates over the coming weeks. Please do not have play dates or organise after school activities which involve household mixing,” Dr Glynn said.

From 15 March, fifth year students and other primary school classes are set to return to schools.

Other year groups in secondary schools are due to return on 12 April after the Easter break.

- Additional reporting by Orla Dwyer.

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