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HSE says 'disappearing' list on online portal is intentional for close contacts in schools

It was highlighted that a positive case’s close contacts disappeared when the ‘school setting’ option was selected.

Image: Shutterstock/Volurol

THE HSE HAS moved to reassure close contacts of Covid-19 cases in schools that they will be asked for details by phone, after reports of an option to provide them disappearing from the health service’s contact tracing portal.

Fears were raised after it was highlighted that a positive Covid-19 case’s close contacts could not be uploaded to the HSE portal after the individual reported being in a ‘school setting’.

The HSE has clarified that positive Covid-19 cases in “complex” settings receive calls from public-health officials to collect their list of close contacts.

The primary school teachers union the INTO said it is “aware of this issue”, and has raised it with the Department of Education.

Frustrations have been raised about the system to contact trace in schools, with the surge in Covid-19 cases resulting in disruption to children’s education and exacerbated by a “crisis” in the provision of substitute teachers to replace teachers when they are isolating.

However, the HSE has said in a statement to The Journal that its ‘List Your Contacts’ portal is just one option that is sent to confirmed contacts via text and attends to “speed up the process” of contact tracing.

Certain categories of people are excluded at the start of the List Your Contacts process and advised that a contact tracer will call them to get their contacts – this generally applies to people working in, attending, or staying in settings that are more complex.

“Currently we are contacting cases by telephone to get details of their close contacts within 24 hours. If anyone has concerns in relation to this process we are happy to follow up with them individually.”

NPHET has advised that antigen tests can be used in certain circumstances in relation to schools, but the details of when and how they will be used have not been specified yet.

The health service is to publish a plan next week on how antigen tests will be used in school-going children, following a high incidence in children aged 5-12.

TDs and teachers have expressed concern about schools being “left in the dark” on how Covid-19 is spreading in educational settings and the latest surge in cases creating difficulty in providing education to students.

A teacher’s perspective

Eolan Ryng, a primary school teacher at Scoil Oilibhéir in Ballyvolane, north of Cork city, said that it has been challenging to “operate in a void”, particularly amid an “explosion of cases”.

He said that in his experience, when contact tracing was in place there were “much lower cases than the last academic year”.

“We had full knowledge of when cases were in our classes and comprehensive action was taken. Contact tracing was there, the support was there,” he said.

He also claimed that a lack of substitute teachers available has made it difficult for education provision while teachers self isolate with symptoms, and said the system was smoother when teachers were prioritised for PCR testing.

“We don’t have that now – there’s a waiting list for a test, and there’s a waiting time for the test to be administered. There might be three or four days where the teacher has been tested, but the result isn’t in.”

“It’s just a really bad set up,” he said, adding that the situation is putting pressure on teachers, and affecting children with special educational needs in particular.

“Speaking for myself, they pulled the rug from under us a little bit. They’re kind of in denial about what’s going on on the ground. If this goes on, schools will not be able to function in a safe way. I think there’s a limited time to get it right.”

Schools ‘exasperated’, ‘left in the dark’

Sinn Féin spokesperson on education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that the situation in schools has “descended into a bit of a fiction”.

“We all know Covid is circulating substantially in schools – the way it’s circulating everywhere – and we’re not having a real conversation about it. We’re only now beginning to explore it.”

He said that although it was “sensible” to do away with the contact tracing system that required all close contacts in schools to self-isolate to see if symptoms emerged, people were “surprised” when they “did away with it completely”.

There’s a middle ground to be found here… It’s not fair on the schools to be left in the dark. 

He said that the substitute teacher crisis needs to be acknowledged by the Government, adding that one school received 11 rejections for substitute teacher requests in nine days.

“People can’t get substitutes, and are advised to lean on local solutions. None of this is easy but local arrangements are not working.”

Labour party spokesperson on education Aodhán O’Riordáin said that teachers and principals are “exasperated and exhausted”.

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He said the system in September wasn’t working, and that principals have been left feeling abandoned.

“Every time we raise an issue, we get initially a knee-jerk response [from Government], which is a completely irrational response to a genuine issue, and then the situation changes. They said we were exaggerating when we said the system was quiet chaotic. 

When asked whether the antigen system will make a difference, Ó Riordáin says:

“People have been saying these things for months and months, and have not been listened to for months and months. Now they listen, but we’ve lost six months. 

Schools all run on reputation, and are reluctant to put their hands up to say they’re not coping. You always defend the name of the school before anything else [because of the possible reputational damage] and schools are acutely aware of that. 
Teachers don’t want to not heighten kids’ anxiety either – for some, the school environment is the only place they feel safe and secure, so to raise concerns about that goes against that very basic instinct. Schools are caught in that bind and not really able to speak about their experiences.

When asked about the high incidence of Covid-19 among children, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told reporters on Friday that the most significant health issue for children is non-Covid respiratory illnesses, which is an additional reason for symptomatic children to be kept at home.

Education Minister Norma Foley told reporters on Friday that her Department has “always followed the public health advice given to us”, and said they will roll out any additional measures required “as quickly as we possibly can”. 

We are very happy to take on any additional tool at any moment in time. It is now just recently that the recommendation from the CMO means that [antigen testing] can be done in specific incidences. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said if there’s concern “at a particular point in time” about transmission in a school, and “when certain criteria are met in that setting”, those who are identified as close contacts may be tested using antigen tests.

Parents should not be using antigen testing as a green light test if their children have symptoms. The core message is and will remain to parents and to school authorities that any child with a symptom suggestive of Covid-19 should not be going into school. They need to stay at home, and they need to get PCR tested.

“If there are particular outbreaks of concern in educational facilities, Public Health teams will continue to provide support to schools should it be required and testing will remain available more broadly to children should it be required on public health or clinical grounds or following a Public Health Risk Assessment (PHRA).

“While transmission of Covid-19 can take place in schools, we know that schools are a lower risk environment for transmission. This is attributable to the work that’s been done by schools, by parents, by teachers’ organisations, boards of management, principals, and obviously the children themselves in schools adhering to the public health measures that are in place.”

The HSE said it has been asked to consider any specific circumstances there may be a clinical value for the deployment of antigen testing, and to liaise with the DOH and DOE on how any such guidance might be operationalised.

“The Department of Health, the Department of Education and the HSE are now considering the most effective means of operationalising the very specific set of guidance that may apply to those regarded as close contacts in the school environment.”

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