Government urged to reintroduce contact tracing in primary schools

The general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has called on the Government to “look again” at reintroducing contact tracing in primary schools.

It comes after public-health officials gave the green light for the education sector to reopen on Thursday.

Schools are bracing themselves for staff shortages and Covid-19 outbreaks as chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said it was “inevitable” children would pick up the infection from household contacts over the coming days and weeks which, in turn, would lead to more cases in schools.

However, he said latest research indicated that schools were a lower-risk environment for the transmission of the virus and the majority of children who are infected experience a mild form of the disease.

“I am beseeching the Government,” John Boyle told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday. “It [contact tracing] worked well while we had it. That’s my big ask. That’s what we need if we want gold-standard teaching.”

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The move to reopen schools follows a meeting between Minister for Education Norma Foley, public-health officials and education partners on Wednesday against a backdrop of record Covid-19 numbers driven by the Omicron variant.

Mr Boyle said he is “more upbeat” about the return to school following the meeting.

Prior to Christmas, at a “very terse” meeting on December 22nd, “public health actually apologised for their failures and from then on there has been work done over Christmas to be fair”, he said.

“Public health are coming back to help primary, to support principals and teachers who were really beleaguered before Christmas. There will be people in each HSE area basically designated to help primary principals.

“The Inspectorate are coming back on board to a greater degree and even though parents will be absolutely thrilled that schools are reopening tomorrow there is a big caution around all of this. We’re probably going to have 7,000 to 8,000 members missing.”

During the first school term, when there was no contact tracing in primary schools, there had been no data on outbreaks and infections coming in, he added. At the meeting with public health on Tuesday, “a huge amount of data” had been presented that showed children “are not driving this pandemic”.

There was a lot more to be done, he added. The message from schools was that this was going to be a very difficult term and there would be situations where classes would have to be from home.

“Some juggling” would be required, but the priority was to ensure children “who don’t thrive” when there is no school and those with special needs would attend school.

If children had to go home, it would be senior children, he said. Teachers could have to move from their own class to another, but the aim was to keep schools open.

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